The state of Penang, nestled along the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, needs no introduction in the global electronics manufacturing sector. Despite its diminutive stature with just over 1,000 square kilometers of land area and a 1.8 million-strong population, Penang commanded an estimated 5% of global semiconductor exports in 2019, according to data compiled from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) and UN Comtrade.
The State’s transformation, from a traditional seaport economy into the Silicon Valley of the East, began in the 1970s, when the establishment of Malaysia’s first free trade zone in the State drew key investments from eight Multinational Corporations (MNCs). These pioneering investors – Intel Corporation, Hewlett Packard (now Keysight Technologies and Agilent Technologies), Robert Bosch, AMD, Litronix (now Osram Opto Semiconductors), Hitachi (now Renesas), Clarion and National Semiconductor – sparked the development of a robust ecosystem of ancillary industries, which formed a foundation for the State’s rise as a prominent, offsite manufacturing hub.
Today, Penang houses more than 350 MNCs that are supported by over 3,000 manufacturing-related SMEs. As Penang flourished as a vibrant, regional E&E manufacturing hub, the local talent pool steadily accumulated a wealth of business intelligence and technical experience, enabling the robust supply chain to evolve in tandem with technology megatrends. This, in turn, enabled the State to focus on pursuing investments that have propelled the industry up the value chain, away from its beginnings as a low-cost manufacturing hub. Consequently, Penang has seen a proliferation of upstream technology-related investments in high value-added functions in recent years, ranging from research and development (R&D), design and knowledge-based solutions, and downstream advanced manufacturing and testing to global business service (GBS) and Centre of Excellence (CoE) activities.
Penang’s growing significance in the global E&E value chain is demonstrated by its steady and resilient export performance in recent years. From 2014 to 2019, the State’s E&E exports grew at a compounded annual rate (CAGR) of 12% to reach RM210 billion (US$51 billion). It has emerged as a hub for professional, scientific and controlling instruments (including medical technology), with exports of these products growing at a 5-year CAGR of 15% to reach RM23 billion (US$6 billion) in 2019.
E&E products, alongside professional, scientific and controlling instruments, collectively contributed between 77% and 82% of Penang’s total annual exports since 2014, and accounted for 50% of Malaysia’s exports in these two segments during the period.
More impressively, despite the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, Penang’s total exports continued to rise in 2020, growing 7% year-on-year to RM310 billion (US$75 billion), and a further 14% year-on-year in January and February 2021, driven by strong global demand for semiconductors.
Shaping up as the destination of choice for advanced manufacturing investments
As part of efforts to move Penang’s industry up the value chain, the State government has placed emphasis on attracting companies with strong commitments in implementing Industry 4.0 and sustainable investing. These efforts have yielded positive results, with the state having gained traction as a hub for advanced manufacturing investments. This is evidenced by the rising trend in investments per new job creation, which saw a six-fold jump from 2012 to 2020, as well as the number of global heavyweights announcing new investments as well as expansions of existing facilities in the State in 2019 and 2020.
Penang attracted RM31 billion (US$7.5 billion) in approved direct manufacturing investment inflows in 2019 and 2020, 88% of which involved investments into the E&E, equipment and medical technology industries. Prominent new investments included those from Lam Research, Bosch Group, Ultra Clean Holdings, Dexcom as well as Smith+Nephew. Together with planned expansions by a number of existing MNCs in Penang, these new investments, which are on track to commence operations between 2021 and 2023, are poised to bring Penang’s industry to greater heights and further integrate the State into the global value chain.
Recent Notable Direct Manufacturing Investments in Penang
Source: InvestPenang, respective companies
Penang’s conducive business environment nurtures successful homegrown technology companies
Penang’s conducive business environment has not only proven successful in attracting foreign direct investments (FDIs), but also successfully nurtured local E&E success stories of locally employed engineers turned technopreneurs, who have founded and built companies that have successfully grown to become internationally renowned in their own right.
These homegrown E&E companies play crucial roles in the ecosystem, particularly in the areas of automated test equipment (ATE), automation, outsourced semiconductor assembly and testing (OSAT) services, electronics manufacturing services (EMS), precision engineering and tooling. The past five years have also seen the emergence of young, fast-growing Penang-based companies such as Experior, Oppstar Technology and Skyechip, which provide IC design and IC test design services to MNC clients globally.
Public-private partnerships cultivate Penang’s talent development roadmap
The state is cognisant that the development of a robust and skilled talent pool is imperative to support the growth of strategic industries in Penang. Strong public-private partnerships with concerted efforts in supporting talent development are key to Penang’s continued success. Toward this end, the State government has backed Penang Skills Development Centre’s (PSDC) industry-led training and education efforts, which have helped train over 200,000 of workers to support the industry’s needs since 1989. The State has also coordinated collaboration for industries to provide input to local institutions of higher learning on the relevance of the institutions’ courses, and rallied the industry to support State-run scholarships (Penang Future Foundation) and STEM initiatives.
Holistic initiatives to make Penang a world-class investment destination for global frontier companies
The dynamics of the global value chain, especially for the technology sector, have evolved rapidly since 2018, particularly amid the complex confluence of trade protectionism, COVID-19 pandemic-driven issues and disruptive technologies.
The State government believes that strong, geographically localised industry clusters could help companies mitigate the risks of supply chain disruptions, in addition to improving companies’ time-to-market at a lower cost.
To further increase Penang’s attractiveness for high quality investments, the State is focusing on three key strategies:
1) Extending its competitive edge in advanced manufacturing, further strengthening Penang’s industry clusters, which include expediting SMEs’ Industry 4.0 transformation journey, and nurturing more homegrown companies to penetrate the global supply chain;
2) Embarking on a continuous drive to develop and recruit talent to the State, as well as cultivate the younger generation’s interest in STEM; and
3) Enhancing Penang’s liveability with a strong focus on making Penang a smart and green city.
The State government is committed to continue developing Penang in a holistic manner, with the aim of creating a vibrant business and investment destination with a robust and sustainable economy and high standard of living, creating a conducive environment to “work, live, learn, play and invest.”