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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Fighting Covid-19 Helps Penang Take Charge of its Digital Future

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial, April 2020

THE PENANG STATE Government has adopted “Next Normal” as the working term to denote the immediate post-Covid-19 era. This is exciting in that it proposes that normalcy in the coming years should be perceived as dynamic – and therefore continuously transitional – rather than static.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the global infrastructure of trade, travel and strategy and revealed it to be more fragile than we had thought. The disruptions it has caused will play out differently at the international, regional, national and local levels.

Now, this is a very big deal. An event that manages to floor the global economic structure and our daily hygiene habits at the same time cannot be otherwise. We have been going through humbling experiences in the past weeks, from high to low, white to black, big to small, and East to West.

What Penang succeeds in doing in the coming months and years will have global implications, and the global situation will in turn affect the way we respond at the lowest level.

Human Hubris has been badly disrupted, and we should not allow it to return too easily.

In a sense, we are all global players now. What Penang succeeds in doing in the coming months and years will have global implications, and the global situation will in turn affect the way we respond at the lowest level.

Locally, we should consider where the socio-economic disruptions have been greatest – and why. In the longer term, these measures should reasonably become the policy pillars for the Next Normal, supporting Penang’s economic, sociocultural and strategic development.

These would cover issues such as Food Security, Public Hygiene, Economic Resilience for MNCs and SMEs, Reliable Public Data, Work Diversity and Effective Public Security, just to name a few.

Luckily, Penang over the last few years had already been planning for an avantgarde future, and while we talk about disruptions brought on by the virus, it is in fact more fruitful to consider how the crisis has accelerated certain trends that had been obvious, chief of which are the need for increased involvement of citizens in policy-making and the digitalisation of human society as a whole. These had already been articulated in the Penang2030 vision that was launched in August 2018, and complementarily expressed in the formation, just before the pandemic arrived in March 2020, of Digital Penang.


To reiterate, the ideals highlighted in Penang2030, appropriately named “Family-focused Green and Smart State that Inspires the Nation” include the following:

Increase Liveability through public welfare, public hygiene and environmental consciousness;
Upgrade the Economy through creative industries, agricultural development, environmental consciousness and comprehensive digitalisation;
Empower, Expose and Educate Citizens in economic, sociocultural and technological matters, and democratise policy-making; and
Improve Resilience through spatial planning, connectivity, administrative reforms, and disaster management.

In light of Covid-19, these points have gained in poignancy and relevance, and definitely in urgency.


Digitalisation signals connectivity on the one hand, and reliable databases on the other. The measures required to achieve these have to be sustained, comprehensive and inclusive. For Penang, the discussion among policymakers on this has been in four broad areas:

1. Digital Governance

2. Digital Infrastructure

3. Digital Community

4. Digital Economy

After studying policies undertaken in that direction by other cities and countries, the Penang State Government decided to form Digital Penang (DP), and as luck would have it, it managed to finalise the practical details of DP’s establishment just before the Movement Control Order was announced in mid-March.

Now, Penang’s population is known to be pragmatic, educated and entrepreneurial. With the tribulations that everyone has recently suffered from Covid-19, no one now doubts that the future is a thoroughly digital one. Most segments should therefore be ready to invest, innovate and assist each other in that direction.

Luck is with Penang on that score, and with dedicated leadership, it appears better equipped than all other states to lead Malaysia into the post-Covid-19 world.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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