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

The Creative Economy Appears Devised for Penang

By Ooi Kee Beng, April 2023 Editorial, Penang Monthly

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THE TERM “creative economy” sometimes sounds like an oxymoron in that human creativity is more often than not associated with the arts, executed more for passion and as individual expression than for making money.

But like with so many things today, we have to consider seriously the many new combinations of old words and the novel usages of old terms—paradigmatic shifts, in effect—that have flooded 21st century living. Digital technologies will continue to change our world and, in turn, challenge the comprehensibility of our most common words.

The joining of Creativity and Economy is sneaky, however. Since the two are such basic words, when put together, they seem to denote something one should instinctively grasp. And so, we think we know what it is. But on further thought, one often feels the need to glibly say, “It depends on what you mean by ‘creative economy’.

Necessarily Confusing

My point is that the term is too new to not be vague, and too trendy to not be confusing; and I suspect that it will remain that way for some time yet. The socialising of the term, at least in this part of the world, is still in its infant stage.

If you are one whose mind is drawn to “creative” rather than to “economy”, then you may think of the arts, and of crafts of all sorts, and developing the “creative economy” to you is about easing artists in their production process and in their marketing, and keeping their activities sustainable.

And if you are one who likes the term “economy” more than “creative”, then in this day and age of technological disruptions, you are bound to be thinking more about knowledge-based entrepreneurship, intellectual property issues and start-ups. What you will be considering is one or the other of the “creative industries”.

Since 2004, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is the international body that has been pushing most strongly for a clear global comprehension of the term “creative economy”. To them, one should not go wrong if one focuses on one or the other of the creative industries which are the creative economy’s components.

The examples of industries listed by UNCTAD on their Creative Economy Programme website to elucidate their point are “advertising, architecture, arts and crafts, design, fashion, film, video, photography, music, performing arts, publishing, research and development, software, computer games, electronic publishing and TV/radio”. These are all rather conventional career categories; nothing new there.

But we do see that all of these are “industries” in which a deep sense of aesthetics is required in the practitioners in order to excel, be this in “music” or “architecture”.

UNCTAD’s objective for promoting the notion of a creative economy is clear enough; it is to argue that with facilitation and inspiration from radically new technologies, such industries can provide “new opportunities for developing countries to leapfrog into emerging high-growth areas of the world economy”. This is key; new technologies promise the latecomer advantages that were simply not available before.

This is indeed a valiant attempt to marry the artist to the techie, and by locating the whole process within the digital revolution of the 21st century. The lonesome creativity of the artist is linked to the globalising tendencies of the techie.

For Penang, this conceptual leap holds great opportunities that have yet to be recognised and taken full advantage of. Not only are the artistic and entrepreneurial skills of Penang’s entrepot culture celebrated widely and not only is its multicultural population respected for its passion and creativity, its vibrant manufacturing sector, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is now a vital node in the global digital industrial network.

Out of the haze of the Covid-19 vaccines, and dazed by the volatility of the geopolitical situation following the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict and US-China tensions, Penang is quickly becoming more of an E&E hub than it has ever been before. We are on the frontline in the Chip War.

To put it simply, Penang generates artists, it has always done that, and it now generates digital engineers. Letting its techie culture inspire its artist legacy can lead to great things.

It has all the ingredients needed for a chemical bond between the two to occur.

Historically, creative economy was always at Penang’s doorstep. We now need to digitalise it, upgrade it, master it — and blossom in it.


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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