A Malaysian girl carries a national flag during an Independence Day parade rehearsals in Kuala Lumpur.

At 60, does Malaysia need to re-examine identity?

Updated 3:46 AM ET, Wed August 30, 2017

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN)Sixty years after winning independence from the British, and with an election looming on the horizon, two questions still bedevil Malaysia -- Does this multi-ethnic country of 32 million people have a singular national identity? And did it ever have one in the first place?

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.
A man opens a bus door through an advertisement showing the Malaysia ethnic communities with traditional dress in Kuala Lumpur, September 25, 2013.

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.
    The plan was to get the community -- known as the Bumiputera (or sons of the soil) -- to control at least 30% of the national economy within 20 years.
    In 1991, the NEP was first replaced with the National Development Policy, and then other plans with the latest being the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap 2.0, all of which have continued to give the Bumiputera most of the same privileges.
    The Bumiputera share of national capital ownership today stands at between 29% and 35% per capita. The Bumiputera also hold the top positions in most government-linked institutions, a great many private sector companies, as well as the bulk of all civil sector jobs.
    Yet, the divisive race-based affirmative action policies show no signs of going away, and as a result, Malaysia's communities are yet to come together as one.