Country Profile: Malaysia

— -- Malaysia is an amalgam of a country, in more than one sense of the word.

It is a country that exists on two landmasses, separated by some 640 miles of the South China Sea.

And within those landmasses, there are a wide variety of ethnicities, languages and religions under the governance of one parliamentary monarchy.

Over half of Malaysia's population is Malay, one-third is Chinese, one-tenth is Indian, and the remainder comes from indigenous tribes. The Chinese are the country's wealthiest community, while the Malays have the most political clout. Indians are among the country's poorest.

The country has followers in almost all organized religions: Islam (which is practiced by more than half the population), Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism as well as shamanism.

The country's official languages are Bahasa Melayu and English, but Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Foochow), Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Panjabi, Thai and several indigenous languages are spoken.

A Working Combination

The country dates from 1963 when Malaya and the former British Singapore, forming West Malaysia, merged with Sabah and Sarawak in north Borneo, which composed East Malaysia.

Singapore separated from the union in 1965, but by most accounts, the union has been successful.

The country is often cited as a prime example of an Asian "tiger economy." It was booming until the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Even to this day, the country is the most popular tourist destination in its region, offering excellent beaches, brilliant scenery and spectacular wildlife.

Financial prospects also remain positive: It is among the world's biggest producers of computer disk drives, palm oil, rubber and timber.

Yet the country has persistent problems as well.

Its traditional racial divides continue to threaten stability, and many experts have warned about careless exploitation of its natural resources, especially its forests. One estimate said they were are being cut down at four times the sustainable rate.