Malaysia profile - Overview

Map of Malaysia

Malaysia boasts one of south-east Asia's most vibrant economies, the fruit of decades of industrial growth and political stability.

Its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society encompasses a majority Muslim population in most of its states and an economically-powerful Chinese community. Consisting of two regions separated by some 640 miles of the South China Sea, Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories.

It is one of the region's key tourist destinations, offering excellent beaches and brilliant scenery. Dense rainforests in the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, are a refuge for wildlife and tribal traditions.

Ethnic Malays comprise some 60% of the population. Chinese constitute around 26%; Indians and indigenous peoples make up the rest. The communities coexist in relative harmony, although there is little racial interaction - and the overturning of a ban on the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims in December 2009 highlighted the religious divide in the country.

Although since 1971 Malays have benefited from positive discrimination in business, education and the civil service, ethnic Chinese continue to hold economic power and are the wealthiest community. The Malays remain the dominant group in politics while the Indians are among the poorest.

The country is among the world's biggest producers of computer disk drives, palm oil, rubber and timber. It has a state-controlled car maker, Proton, and tourism has considerable room for expansion.

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Image caption The indigenous Penan people of Sarawak have been affected by large-scale logging

Malaysia's economic prospects have been dented by the global economic downturn, which has hit export markets hard. In March 2009 the government unveiled a $16bn economic stimulus plan as it sought to stave off a deep recession.

Concerns have been raised that the drive towards further industrialisation could pose a serious threat to the environment. The Borneo rainforest is under pressure from palm oil plantations, and environmental campaigners have expressed misgivings over wholesale logging in the state of Sarawak.

Environmental activists have also objected to plans for a rare earths processing plant in the state of Pahang.

The country also faces the challenge of sustaining stability in the face of religious differences and the ethnic wealth gap.

Malaysia's human rights record has come in for international criticism. Internal security laws allow suspects to be detained without charge or trial.