For nearly four decades, ethnic Malays have benefited from positive discrimination and special rights over the nearly 40% of Malaysians from the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
But in 2008, the country's unique racial compact began to be strongly challenged from within.
For Crossing Continents, Mukul Devichand reports from this remarkable multi-ethnic nation and asks if this is a defining moment?
He meets Malay, Indian and Chinese young people on the front lines of the struggle between ingrained racism and the possibility of a more equal future.
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 8 January, 2009 at 1102 GMT. It was repeated on Monday, 12 January, 2009 at 2030 GMT.
Reporter and Producer: Mukul Devichand