The question of identity has been central to the country since three race-based political parties banded together to win independence on August 31, 1957.
But it has become an even more sensitive issue over the past decade or so as the nation grapples with a Malay-Muslim majority largely determined to maintain the status quo, and minorities equally determined to assert their rights.
At the heart of the issue are government policies that heavily favor the Malay majority, often to the exclusion of minorities.
Sons of the soil
Possibly the best-known and widest reaching of these schemes is the New Economic Policy, which was introduced in 1971 and gave Malays perks like cheaper housing, business loans and generous quotas to enter public universities.
The policy's genesis lay in the aftermath of brutal Sino-Malay race riots which resulted in the death of hundreds of ethnic Chinese Malaysians.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein the country's prime minister, created the New Economic Policy to lift up the Malays, who were mired in poverty, through the use of affirmative action policies.