Its multi-ethnic and multi-religious society encompasses a majority Muslim population 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, brilliant scenery and spectacular wildlife.
Ethnic Malays comprise some 60% of the population. Chinese constitute around 26%; Indians and indigenous tribes make up the rest. The communities coexist in relative harmony, although there is little racial interaction.
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.
Malaysia's economic prospects remain relatively good. It is among the world's biggest producers of computer disk drives, palm oil, rubber and timber. It manufactures a "national" car - the Proton - and its tourism industry retains considerable room for expansion.
But it also faces 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.
- Population: 25.3 million (UN, 2005)
- Capital: Kuala Lumpur
- Area: 329,847 sq km (127,355 sq miles)
- Major languages: Malay (official), English, Chinese dialects, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam
- Major religions: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism
- Life expectancy: 71 years (men), 75 years (women)
- Monetary unit: 1 ringgit = 100 sen
- Main exports: Electronic equipment, petroleum and liquefied natural gas, chemicals, palm oil, wood and wood products, rubber, textiles
- GNI per capita: US $4,650 (World Bank, 2005)
- Internet domain: .my
- International dialling code: +60
Head of state: Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin
Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail was installed as Malaysia's 12th king during a glittering ceremony in 2002.
The king's role is largely ceremonial, although he is nominal head of the armed forces and all laws and the appointment of every cabinet minister require his assent.
Under Malaysia's constitutional monarchy, the position of king is rotated every five years.
Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, himself a prince, devised the system after independence in 1957 to spread power among the sultans and rajas who had ruled over fiefdoms on the Malay peninsula for hundreds of years.
Prime minister: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in October 2003, when Asia's longest-serving elected leader retired after 22 years in power.
On taking office he faced a strong political challenge from opposition Islamic fundamentalists and inherited the task of overseeing one of the region's most vibrant economies.
In March 2004 Mr Abdullah was sworn in for a new, five-year term after his coalition government won a landslide victory in parliamentary and regional elections. Correspondents said the victory boosted the prime minister's chances of pushing through his package of reforms, including a promise to stamp out corruption.
In contrast to his predecessor, Mr Abdullah has been described as self-effacing. He has been called the "Mr Nice Guy" of Malaysian politics.
Mr Abdullah was born in 1939 in Penang. His father was a founding member of Umno, Malaysia's ruling party. After gaining a degree in Islamic studies he worked in the civil service before being elected to parliament in 1978.
Malaysia has been ruled by a coalition, the National Front, since independence. The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is the biggest grouping in the alliance, which includes Chinese and Indian parties.
Malaysia has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world. The authorities exert substantial control over the media and restrictions may be imposed in the name of national security.
The government is keen to insulate the largely-Muslim population from what it considers harmful foreign influences on TV. News is subject to censorship, entertainment shows and music videos regularly fall foul of the censors, and scenes featuring swearing and kissing are routinely removed from TV programmes and films.
The TV sector comprises commercial networks and pay-TV operations. Around a quarter of TV households subscribe to the Astro multichannel service. A second pay-TV operator, MiTV, launched in 2005. TV3 is a leading national private, terrestrial broadcaster.
State-owned Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) operates two channels and many of the country's radio services. Private stations are on the air, broadcasting in Malay, Tamil, Chinese and English.
Newspapers must renew their publication licences annually, and the home minister can suspend or revoke publishing permits.
Some web sites, such as Laman Reformasi, close to former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, freeMalaysia or Malaysiakini, have come in for official criticism.