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

Top Policy Priorities in the Wake of the Crisis

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial, Penang Monthly, February 2021

AS COVID-19 steadily dismantles the Old Normal, our uncertainties get more and more focused on basics. No longer do we worry as much about that continually postponed overseas trip as much as we do about whether we are allowed to exercise in the neighbourhood park. No longer do we worry about whether the federal government is legitimate or not as much as we do about the stability of our daily food supply.

But even as our daily behavioural patterns are being transformed by the pandemic – and that includes simple things such as the washing of hands, the wearing of masks and the maintaining of physical distance, it is vital that we balance the negative psychological effects of this by assuming an optimistic and realistic mind-set focused on the possibilities still at hand.

We need to keep our sense of agency strong. Draconian measures – necessary in a health crisis but unscrupulous otherwise – tend over time to bring gloom, depression and dejection to everyone involved. Limiting social life, social contacts and social activities is a cultural disaster as much as it is an economic one; and the only condition excusing it is that it is contingent and temporary.

So, what of the future?

First off, Covid-19 vaccines are here, and with promising efficacy levels. So, there is actually a future.

Secondly, although many industries have been badly hit, most notably the travel sector, there are other industries that show great promise of excelling in the post-pandemic world.

While businesses that depend on selling venues and on gathering people together, such as co-working spaces and convention hall companies, suffer badly, those built on digital tools have managed well, like Shopee and DeliverEat, or Zoom and Amazon. There are at least two lessons for Penang, especially its policymakers, to learn from this. The first is that a top-notch digital infrastructure – ultimately conceived as a public utility on par with electricity supply and water supply – is necessary if Penang’s economy is to take the leap into IR 4.0 in a proactive and prominent way. Where the industrial zones are concerned, the deciding dynamics are often international, and while the state should plan for the future of such zones, the process is at least a medium term one.

Three Immediate Tasks

For now, with PDC and Digital Penang already up and running as facilitators for digitalisation, all that is needed is political will and focus for telco companies and other stakeholders to align their capacities to equip the state and its people as soon as possible with this definitive stimulation for innovation and inspiration.

That should thus be Priority Number One, and also the best immediate term lesson we can learn from Covid-19.

The second lesson of great import to Penang – and to Malaysia as a whole – is to invest in agricultural technology. No doubt Malaysia’s agricultural sector has been in need of modernisation for a long time, and of being freed policy-wise from the industrial agriculture sector dealings with palm oil, rubber, et cetera. Covid-19 brings the issue of food security to the forefront, and in light of how the tourism sector – one of the two economic pillars for Penang’s wellbeing – has been so badly hit, a back-up sector that holds promise of becoming a third economic pillar in the new future is very much needed; and this should be the agrotech sector, which includes the state’s already enviably strong aquaculture industry.

… a back-up sector that holds promise of becoming a third economic pillar in the new future is very much needed… this should be the agrotech sector…

This should be Priority Number Two. [See these Penang Institute articles on the future of the agrotech sectors in Penang, on Penang Institute’s website, such as “Strengthening Food Security in Light of Covid-19” – https://penanginstitute.org/publications/monographs/strengthening-food-security-in-light-of-covid-19/ and “Penang’s Aquaculture Industry Holds Great Economic Potential” – https://penanginstitute.org/publications/issues/1005-penang-s-aquaculture-industry-holds-great-economic-potential].

Given how diverse Penang’s economic activities actually are, and how exciting sustainable development and green growth have become to the public eye, a new and more comprehensive approach to economic planning is welcome. [See “Realising Blue Economy Benefits in Penang” – https://penanginstitute.org/publications/issues/realising-blue-economy-benefits-in-penang/].

A Walk-zone State

Where tourism is concerned, in the coming months and years, as the sector slowly regains its international market, we will be depending on Malaysians making day trips or staying for the weekend in the state. And this will remain the case for quite some time after the pandemic has been tamed.

Given that our small businesses have been pushed to the cliff’s edge by Covid-19, it makes sense for the state to plan for a better dispersal of tourism custom throughout the state. Highlighting the quaintness of the many townships and exciting streets throughout the state to attract tourists away from the traditional destinations such as George Town and Gurney Drive will not only allow for Penang to absorb these tourists better and to attract repeat visits, but also help the many small businesses survive. Marketing the many townships in Penang to the domestic tourist should therefore be another top priority for the Penang State Government. In fact, Penang Institute is constructing an initiative it calls “Walk Zones in Penang” to tell the world that Penang is a much more interesting place than even a fervent domestic tourist today might think. [More information on this to come in the near future].

Crises don’t last. They may leave a lot of damage behind, but they pass. The same holds for the opportunities they offer.


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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