Singapore, too, has been free from race riots since 1969.
If the benefits of cosseting bumiputeras are not as clear as they first appear, the costs, alas, are all too obvious.
As schools, universities and the bureaucracy have become less meritocratic, Chinese and Indians have abandoned them, studying in private institutions and working in the private sector instead.
Many have left the country altogether, in a brain drain that saps economic growth.
Steering so many benefits to Malays—developers are even obliged to give them discounts on new houses—has created a culture of entitlement and dependency.
Malays have stopped thinking of affirmative action as a temporary device to diminish inequality. As descendants of Malaysia's first settlers, they now consider it a right.
The result is that a system intended to quell ethnic tensions has entrenched them.
Many poorer Malays vote reflexively for UMNO, the Malay party that introduced affirmative action in the 1970s and has dominated government since then, for fear that another party might take away their privileges.
With these votes in the bag, UMNO's leaders can get away with jaw-dropping abuses, such as the continuing scandal at 1MDB, a development agency that mislaid several billion dollars, much of which ended up in officials' pockets, according to American investigators.
Minorities, in turn, overwhelmingly support parties that advocate less discrimination against them.
The ambition to improve the lot of Malaysia's neediest citizens is a worthy one.
But defining them by race is a mistake.
It allows a disproportionate amount of the benefits of affirmative action to accrue to well-off Malays, who can afford to buy the shares set aside for them at IPOs, for example, or to bid for the government contracts Mr Najib is reserving for them.
It would be much more efficient, and less poisonous to race relations, to provide benefits based on income.
Most recipients would still be Malays.
And defusing the issue should pave the way for more nuanced and constructive politics.
Perhaps that is why UMNO has resisted the idea for so long.