NB: This article was originally published in issue 8.12 of the Penang Monthly.

The advent of the digital era, characterised by seamless and instantaneous transfer of information and unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, has seen a paradigm shift in social, political and economic strategies worldwide.

In fact, it is commonly said that the world has entered into “the knowledge revolution or knowledge economy”, which some have argued to be “the latest phase of capitalism”[1]. In this age of knowledge, mobile capital and the easy spread of technology have meant that the production of goods have increasingly shifted to low cost countries.

“This is a natural progression, especially for developed economies,” notes international investment banker Julian Candiah. “As GDP per capita rises and countries gets richer, a lot of the lower-valued components of the economy have migrated to low cost countries. We have seen this hand-off many times, first in the 1970s to the South-East Asian Tigers, and then in the 1990s to China, and now to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. Even China is now moving up the value chain.”

As developed economies begin to decouple themselves from industrial production, it is suggested that future success would no longer be predicated upon traditional factors such as land, labour and raw materials, but upon the creation of value extracted from knowledge, skills and creativity.

In other words, future jobs in the so-called knowledge economy would require working with our brains and not with our hands. Soft power, and not hard power, would drive the world forward.

So how exactly has this experiment fared?

e-Britain

In 1997, Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister of Britain on the wave of Cool Britannia and the promise of ushering in a new golden age. Having successfully rejuvenated and remodelled a now centrist, market-embracing Labour Party, the youngest British Prime Minister in nearly two centuries sought to catapult a then lagging Britain into the “forefront of the knowledge economy”.

According to Blair and other deindustrialisation advocates, this new knowledge-driven economy is the “equivalent of the machine-driven economy of the industrial revolution”[2]. In other words, future British success would lie in the country’s ability to shift from an industrial economy to one based on services. To borrow Blair’s own words, Britain needed to transform the “workshop of the world” into the “e-commerce capital of the world”.

This premise, though an innovation, was not a new one. Margaret Thatcher had been the first, two decades before, to prescribe deindustrialisation as the cure for what she deemed to be an uncompetitive, manufacturing-based British economy. By articulating the “knowledge economy” in the context of a globalising world driven by ICT, Blair gave the strategy renewed direction.

For over a decade, the government pursued this policy, turning the British economy into the world’s second largest services exporter after the US. This was achieved on the back of creative services such as film, music, fashion and advertising, as well as other traditional services such as finance, computing and ICT. The picturesque vision of a knowledge economy looked set to come true.

Today, more than a decade later, Blair’s vision remains just that. Having experienced the largest deindustrialisation exercise in post-war Europe, in which the industrial share of the economy saw a decline from 30% in the 1970s to about 11% today, one would be hard-pressed to opine that the British economy is in a better shape than it was.

The British used to make cars, ships and engines for the world. They gave all that up to sell culture, tourism and financial advice, only to find that selling things simply cannot provide the same volume of employment that making things can. Unemployment is now at its highest level since 1995, while income inequality has reached a 30-year peak.

The British northeast, once the proud home to numerous factories, warehouses and dockyards, has now become the poster child of a post-industrial wasteland, sprawling with hollow buildings and muddy estates. Not only have the cacophonous activities come to an end, so too have the jobs, apprenticeships, local industries and support services that typically characterise an ecosystem built around making things. Meanwhile, the vacuum left behind remains vivid for a generation of displaced Britons.

Services-driven Penang?

Though it took a while, the same debate has now made its way to Penang’s shores. In recent times, certain quarters have spoken out about the need to reinvent Penang’s traditional economic base. Citing a fast-depleting land bank and competition from more cost-effective neighbours, they argue that the manufacturing sector has reached its zenith.

Their solution? To transform the services sector to replace manufacturing as the next engine of growth. According to them, Penang no longer has a comparative advantage in manufacturing, and should instead focus on building resources and talent in service industries such as tourism, healthcare, ICT and finance. After all, Penang is no stranger to economic change, having evolved from a free port into an industrial beacon. The question is, is it time to change?

Today, manufacturing remains the bedrock of the Penang economy, easily contributing more than half of Penang’s economic output. In the last two years, Penang has etched itself as the top destination in the country for manufacturing investment, notching RM12.2bil in 2010 and RM9.1bil in 2011. Of this amount, RM17.7bil came in the form of FDI, which means that the second smallest state in Malaysia had managed to attract nearly a third of total national FDI. At the rate the trend is going, there is nothing to indicate a need for a realignment of strategies.

This is not to say that an over-reliance in manufacturing is without its pitfalls. In fact, Penang’s industrial, export-dependent economy is necessarily more exposed than other states to shifts in global economic trends. This was the case during the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a GDP dip of over 10% in real terms (based on constant 2000 prices). In contrast, Malaysia’s GDP only fell by 1.6% during the same period. Manufacturing output in Penang also decreased by 20.2%, double the decline suffered nationally.

Global economic forces are of course hard to resist. That said, Penang managed to bounce back with a real GDP growth of 10% in 2010. And despite this rough patch, Penang’s GDP per capita had actually increased slightly over this period of time. This was achieved because, over the years and more so in recent times, Penang has been able to build up an industrial base that is not merely made up of low-skills and low value-added assembly lines but also cutting-edge technology with leading brands such as Intel, Motorola, Sony, Dell, Honeywell, Bose and National Instruments.

As Candiah says, “The trick is not so much to do ‘manufacturing correctly’, but to do ‘correct manufacturing’. The game must be value-added, high-productivity manufacturing. And to the credit of the folks in charge, they have managed to get it right so far.”

Today, Penang is moving towards high-end manufacturing such as solar panels, LEDs, medical devices and the like. Just last year, Singapore Aerospace Manufacturing opened a facility in Penang to produce precision components for the aviation and aerospace industry. Such value-added industries are exactly the kind that will provide the ingredients needed for Penang to move up the manufacturing value chain.

The myth of the services-based economy

But what about the developed countries that have managed to “graduate” into services-based economies? Singapore, for example, is typically used as an example of a successful former industrial power-turned-services provider. Should that not be Penang’s future direction?

Though widely accepted, the above hypothesis is not entirely accurate. Ha-Joon Chang, a leading Cambridge economist, has frequently pointed out that high income knowledge economies that appear to be services-based are in fact highly industrialised economies. For example, Switzerland, believed to be a post-industrial economy reliant on services such as the banking sector and tourism, in fact ranks as the country with the second highest manufacturing value-add (MVA) per capita[3] in the world. Singapore ranks third. And in the Competitive Industrial Performance Index, Singapore is the world number one.

What most fail to understand is that the success of countries like Switzerland and Singapore is based upon their industrial foundations. And it is from such a foundation that they are able to spin off a services supply chain encompassing research, design, engineering, legal, financial and sales. In other words, one first needs to make a product before one can add value to it and finally, consumerise it. The same trend is also evident in other high income Asian economies such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

As the world progresses, there can be no doubt that consumption of technological products will only increase. Economic downturns may temporarily dampen demand, but in the end, more rather than less manufacturing will be needed to cater to the growing market. Instead of reducing manufacturing, the strategy should be to leverage upon the existing base and focus on value-adds through technology, automation and productivity improvement.

Not what you produce, but how you produce

Years after sounding the clarion call for deindustrialisation, the British government is now talking about a “march of the makers”. In last year’s budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proudly proclaimed that the words “Made in Britain” will once again drive the nation forward.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has embarked on a manufacturing drive in a bid to revive the lacklustre American economy. In a recent speech by Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, at a conference aptly titled “The Renaissance of American Manufacturing”, it was pointed out that manufacturing is responsible for 70% of R&D in America, despite being only 12% of the economy. Not only that, manufacturing jobs pay on average 25% higher than non-manufacturing jobs. Sperling then added, as if struck by an epiphany, that manufacturing would be the key to tackling the country’s ballooning trade deficit.

Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen, but the fact is that the US and Britain have finally realised the potential multiplier effect, in terms of jobs and services, that is inherent in manufacturing. What is understood to be a knowledge-based economy is in fact a corollary resulting from a mature industrial base. In other words, manufacturing is a prerequisite for innovation.

Closer to home, it is critical that we learn from the experiences of others before it is too late. To say that manufacturing has peaked is disingenuous. If anything, it holds even more potential today than it did a few decades ago. What is needed is not to replace manufacturing but to create depth and specialisation through innovation and technology. Moving forward, it will be about how we produce rather than what we produce.

“Today, the buzzword is ‘reindustrialisation’,” says the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) deputy general manager Iskandar Basha Abdul Kadir. “After playing an integral role in the industrialisation of Penang for 40 years, it is time for the PDC to facilitate the reinvestment and revitalisation that is currently being undertaken by most pioneer plants and facilities in our industrial zones.

“We cannot afford to lie around idly by while the whole world is moving. Besides attracting new, value-added industries, we also need to revitalise and reenergise the ‘old’ ones so they can become ‘new’ again.”

According to Iskandar, the premise for the future of the Penang economy is simple. “If we can successfully add value to our existing manufacturing capacity, then we will set off a chain of events that will produce higher value services and, ultimately, higher paying jobs.”


[1] Rikowski, R. (2003), “Value – the Life Blood of Capitalism: knowledge is the current key”, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.1, pp. 160-178.

[2] Speech by Tony Blair at the Knowledge 2000 Conference, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/mar/07/tonyblair

[3] A basic indicator of a country’s level of industrialisation. The higher the MVA, the more industrialised the country.