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.
|Malaysia made the transformationfrom a farm-based economy|
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.
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.
The country also faces other serious challenges - politically, in the form of sustaining stability in the face of religious differences and the ethnic wealth gap, and, environmentally, in preserving its valuable forests.
Malaysia's human rights record has come in for international criticism. Internal security laws allow suspects to be detained without charge or trial.