Malaysia has had a complicated relationship with global university rankings. There was a fleeting moment of glory in 2004 when Universiti Malaya, the national flagship, leaped into the top 100 of the THES-QS world rankings. Sadly, it turned out that this was the result of an error by the rankers who thought that ethnic minorities were international faculty and students. Since then the country's leading universities have gone up and down, usually because of methodological changes rather than any merit or fault of their own.
Recently though, Malaysia seems to have adopted sensible, if not always popular, policies and made steady advances in the Shanghai rankings. There are now three universities in the top 500, UM, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). UM has been rising since 2011 although it fell a bit last year because of the loss of a single highly cited researcher listed in the Thomson Reuters database.
The Shanghai rankings rely on public records and focus on research in the sciences. For a broader based ranking with a consistent methodology and teaching metrics we can take a look at the Round University Rankings. There UM is overall 268th. For the 20 metrics included in these rankings UM's scores range from very good for number of faculty and reputation (except outside the region) to poor for doctoral degrees and normalised citations.
The story told by these rankings is that Malaysia is making steady progress in providing resources and facilities, attracting international students and staff, and producing a substantial amount of research in the natural sciences. But going beyond that is going to be very difficult. Citation counts indicate that Malaysian research gets little attention from the rest of the world. The Shanghai rankings report that UM has zero scores for highly cited researchers and papers in Nature and Science.
In this year's QS world rankings, UM reached 114th place overall and there are now hopes that it will soon reach the top 100. But it should be noted that UM's profile is very skewed with a score of 65.7 for academic reputation and 24.3 for citations per faculty. Going higher without an improvement in research quality will be very challenging since the reputation curve becomes very steep at this level, with dozens of survey responses needed just to go up a few points.
It might be better if Malaysia focused more on the Shanghai rankings, the Round University Rankings and the US News Best Global Universities. Progress in these rankings is often slow and gradual but their results are usually fairly consistent and reliable.