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The Malaysia of today is a peaceful nation of many races and ethnicities. Currently, the population is estimated at 28.3 million inhabitants. Of this number, Bumiputeras are the most numerous ethnic group (broadly speaking) and are defined as those with cultural affinities indigenous to the region and to one another. Technically, this group includes people of the aboriginal groups and ethnic Malays. A smaller segment of the population is non-Bumiputera groups such as the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and Eurasians, most of whom descended from settlers to the region in the past 150 years. It is important to know the difference between the Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera groups to understand Malaysian politics, which favors the first group in every policy. It is equally important to understand that, despite ethnic divisions, each group is considered no less Malaysian.

The state religion is Islam. The Muslim way of life is reflected in almost every element of Malaysian life. The strict adherence to Islam will most likely affect your vacation plans in some way. If you're traveling to Malaysia for an extended period of time or are planning to work here, I highly recommend Malaysian Customs & Etiquette: A Practical Handbook, by Datin Noor Aini Syed Amir (Times Books, 2003), for its great advice on how to negotiate any situation.

As for the non-Muslim, life goes on under the government's very serious policy to protect freedom of religion. Note: Despite its "freedom of religion" policy, Malaysia is very anti-Zionist. Almost daily the local papers report anti-Semitic news, and Israel is the only country in the world to which Malaysian citizens may not travel. If you carry an Israeli passport, you will not be granted entry to the country. Jewish people from other countries who still wish to visit are advised to downplay their religion.

The Populace

About 57% of Malaysians are Malay, while the Chinese and Indians make up 25% and 10% of the population, respectively. The remainder includes Eurasians and myriad indigenous groups such as the orang asli of Peninsular Malaysia; the Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu of Sarawak; and the Kadazan Dusun, Bajau, and Murut of Sabah.

The Government

Malaysia operates within a federal constitutional monarchy. A Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, serves as the head of state -- the heads of nine historic sultanates of Malaysia take turns in this role. The prime minister is the head of government, leading a federal parliament that follows the British system and 13 state assemblies.

While Malaysia is a multiparty system, politics are dominated by Barisan Nasional, a coalition mainly comprised of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Of these, UMNO is by far the most powerful, pushing a national agenda of liberal Islamic values and benefits for Malay and indigenous Malaysians (collectively called Bumiputeras). Since Malaysian independence, every prime minister has been the leader of UMNO.

The current prime minister, Najib Razak, was elected in 2009, and under him, the government has focused primarily on economic issues, inspired by the global financial crisis. Malaysians' biggest concerns are the economy, ethnic discord, and rising crime rates.

The Economy

Until the Asian Economic Crisis that began in July 1997, Malaysia was one of the rising stars of the East Asian Miracle, with an economy built upon the manufacturing sector in electronics and rubber products, as well as on agriculture and mining. Though the crisis hit the country hard, the country bounced back with an annual GDP average of 6%.

In 2009, Malaysia responded to the global financial crisis by rolling out the largest stimulus package in its history, amounting to almost 70 billion Malaysian ringgits, or about US$22.5 billion, most of which went toward preserving jobs and bolstering social safety nets. The country estimates it is back on track to achieve 6% annual growth over the next decade. In early 2010, Prime Minister Najib announced an ambitious New Economic Model, a wide-reaching plan whose ultimate goal is to raise the income of Malaysians from its current average US$7,000 per capita annual income to US$15,000 in 10 years.

Tourism

In 2009, Malaysia attracted a record-breaking 23.6 million tourists, half of which were Singaporeans. Important inbound tourism markets include Thailand, Indonesia, China, and India. The driving forces behind Malaysia's tourism industry are the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions & Exhibitions (MICE) sector; medical tourism; and educational tourism. The government's main tourism focus is historical site conservation; upgrades to tourism-related infrastructure such as air, land, and sea travel; and the improvement of tourism-related services and products.

In 2008, Melaka and Georgetown were inscribed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) World Heritage List for cultural sites. They joined Gunung Mulu National Park and Kinabalu Park, World Heritage List natural sites since 2000.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.