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.
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.
* Full name: Federation of Malaysia
* Population: 27.9 million (UN, 2010)
* 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: 73 years (men), 77 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 $7,760 (World Bank, 2010)
* Internet domain: .my
* International dialling code: +60
Head of state: Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin
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 between each of the nine hereditary state rulers.
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: Najib Abdul Razak
Najib Razak was guaranteed the post of prime minister in March 2009 when he became the leader of the United Malays National Organisation, the main party in the National Front ruling coalition. The sultan is a former ruler of oil-rich Terengganu state. He was 44 when he was sworn in.
He took up office the following month, following the resignation of his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The son of the country's second prime minister and nephew of the third, Mr Najib is regarded by many Malaysians as political blue blood and seems to have been destined for the premiership from an early age.
A British-trained economist, he first entered parliament at the age of 23 - becoming the youngest MP in Malaysian history - and quickly rose to prominence.
He held numerous cabinet posts - including finance and defence - before becoming prime minister.
He took over the premiership at a turbulent time, and faces the enormous challenge of steering the country through the global financial crisis, which has hit the economy hard.
Mr Najib pledged radical reforms and a more transparent government. He said that one of his priorities would be to close a widening ethnic and religious divide, after Malaysia's ethnic minorities shifted towards the opposition in large numbers in the 2008 polls, fearing their rights were being eroded.
But his rise to power was marked by a government crackdown on the resurgent opposition, with allegations that strong-arm tactics were being used to stifle political dissent.
In July 2011, a demonstration in the capital Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reform was forcibly broken up by the police.
However, the following month Mr Najib announced that a cross-party parliamentary committee would look into ways of making the voting process more democratic.
From : BBC News