A place to live and work
The Edge, Special Focus - December 10, 2012
By Jennifer Jacobs
If investPenang general manager Loo Lee Lian had one wish, it would be for more people to realise what a hidden gem Penang is. Not just for investment but as a place to live. And the not-for-profit agency is intent on attracting the right kind of talent so that the state can continue to develop and grow.
"If you look at our CAT (Career Assistance and Talent Centre) website, you see that we actually feature global talents who are working in Penang and their reasons why, as well as the Penangites who used to work elsewhere who have come back here to work. The thread that runs through their stories is that Penang offers a better lifestyle," she says.
On the one hand, there are very high technology companies coming up with world-leading innovations there. On the other hand, George Town is a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage site, so all this innovation goes side by side with the culture and history of the place.
"When we go to schools or universities or institutions of higher learning in Penang, we emphasise that very strongly. We tell the kids that they can find it all in Penang. And our website actually features companies that are hiring as well as information about these companies. We say, 'Look, these are the companies that are hiring. Go look for a job there'."
Penang has changed in the past 40 years. And the kind of companies it hopes to attract has changed along with it. "We're no longer promoting ourselves to companies that use mass labour force. We're looking at more knowledge companies. Part of our job is to get the word out there about Penang as an attractive and intelligent city so that we can get the right kind of talent to come live and work here."
Penang is already well known in the electrical and electronics sector. Now, it is starting to get attention from medical devices companies that are moving in this part of the world as well as companies who are interested in business process outsourcing (BPO) and shared services.
"They're finding that some other countries have become very expensive and that we do have the talent here and our cost is very competitive. So we have been attracting a lot of attention in those two areas and that is what we want," says Loo.
But what Loo really wants to see is a greater diversity in jobs. "If you're an engineer, there are lots of job vacancies for you. But if you're a financial service person, you may find that KL offers you better prospects because the banks are headquartered there. For lawyers too, all the big corporations are in KL.
"We can't compete with Kuala Lumpur as a financial centre but we can look into spreading ourselves in terms of wealth services. Small boutique financial wealth services that are now in Hong Kong and Singapore are finding that the cost is rather expensive," Loo points out, suggesting that these could consider Penang.
"We don't have to be in Switzerland," she adds. "We can be Melbourne."
Loo is also keen to attract companies that want to do BPO. "No, we're not looking at call centres but the higher value-added services. For instance, some companies have gone into outsourcing legal jobs from the US to outside (the country). Those are the companies we want to attract. It increases the diversity of jobs here if we can diversify ourselves from manufacturing-related jobs to more services and knowledge-based ones."
What, to her, is Penang's sweet spot? "Forty years of industrialisation. We have the ecosystem, the supply chain, the ease of doing business and a good command of the English language. We're not prone to natural disasters. And China has become very expensive."
Loo adds that Penang excels in its niche. "We can't beat the Indias and Chinas because we don't have the masses. But we're still ahead of places like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Phillipines. We're still years ahead of them and with us, the ease of doing business and our ongoing investment in science and technology are key points."
Not that Penang is perfect by a long way. If Loo has an aspiration, it's for investPenang to become for Penang what the Economic Development Board (EDB) is for Singapore. "When the EDB says it's a one-stop centre, it really means it. Here, we have to negotiate between the various agencies, both on a state and federeal level. We're supposed to be a one-stop centre, but we cannot give incentives. Different incentives involve different agencies, so you have the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA), Malaysian Industrial International Trade and Industry (Miti). In Singapore, investors need to see only one person in the EDB who can give them everything."
How to make this happen in Penang? "We would need to get all the stakeholders together and really talk about it," says Loo.