Why Do Digital Nomads Prefer Penang?

By Sheryl Teoh

November 2022 FEATURE
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YEARS BEFORE Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) launched DE Rantau, a programme aimed at establishing Malaysia as a digital nomad hub, Penang was already listed as one of the top preferred destinations on nomadlist.com, a popular platform for digital nomads around the world.

Today, Penang ranks #22 on the global list, and currently has at least 800 digital nomads based in the state. By comparison, KL ranks #45.[1]

In the wake of Covid-19, countries around the world are still dealing with disruptions in the travel industry and with changes in the way people work. Many have turned to issuing digital nomad visas for visitors to legally stay while working remotely. The number of countries that issues this type of visa increased from 21 countries in 2021 to a whopping 47 (and counting) in 2022.[2]

Malaysia recently jumped on the bandwagon with the launch of DE Rantau to boost digital adoption and promote digital professional mobility and tourism across Malaysia. Successful applicants of the programme may travel and work in the country for up to 12 months[3] with their spouses and children and have access to benefits such as nomad-ready living and working hubs as well as local services ranging from travel to transport and e-commerce.

Penang is one of the identified DE Rantau hubs, alongside Langkawi, KL and Sabah. Penang Monthly went on nomadlist.com to find out what digital nomads say about their experiences in Penang.

Cost of Living

At the top of the list under pros of Penang is “very cheap to live”. Nomadlist.com estimates the cost of living for digital nomads to be approximately USD982 per month, calculating for short-term stays of up to three months in affordable hotels in the heart of the city and eating out three times a day. The cost of living in Penang, though increasingly steep for locals, remains relatively affordable for foreigners living the geoarbitrage[4] lifestyle.

Transportation

Unsurprisingly, traffic safety is consistently ranked low in Penang. From the onslaught of haphazard motorcyclists on the streets to the questionable driving ethics of Penang motorists, it is easy to see why driving (and walking/cycling/jogging) on the streets of Penang is notoriously intimidating, especially to the uninitiated outsider. Public transportation, though somewhat erratic and usually tardy, is cheap and when coupled with Grab for the first mile/last mile, serves digital nomads in George Town reasonably well.

Language

The widespread use of English is a significant advantage that Penang has over other nomad hubs in the region. “Great thing vs. for example, Thailand, is that people here speak almost perfect English,” according to a review left on nomadlist.com. Many other comments, including those on numerous travel blogs, echo this reviewer’s sentiment. Penang ranks #6 in Asia on nomadlist.com, after Canggu, Bali in Indonesia, Bangkok and Chiangmai in Thailand, Bengaluru in India and Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand.

Nature

A key feature of digital nomadism which sets it apart from remote working is the element of travel. This is why places of interest and other attractions that make for great tourist destinations are typically important to a digital nomad. Penang’s lush, sprawling forests, sandy beaches, warm weather and overall tropical island getup are a huge draw for digital nomads who want to escape the hustle and bustle of big cities and indulge in the restorative effects of nature during their off-hours.

Types of Work

Since not all jobs are location independent, the rise in the nomadic working lifestyle implies a surge in remote work such as in content creation, website development and digital entrepreneurship. Penang, which has a vibrant local start-up scene, especially in the digital and tech industry, already has the right ecosystem for digital nomads to thrive in. With CD2@George Town aiming to spur innovation and investments in digital technology, software services and creative arts, Penang is well-poised as a digital nomad hub. 

Neighbourhoods

Nomadlist.com also includes a crowdsourced map where digital nomads contribute their thoughts on the various quarters in a city. We have recreated the map here and compiled a few of the more interesting labels nomads on the platform have ascribed to the neighbourhoods in Penang.

Footnotes:

[1] https://nomadlist.com/ (Retrieved on 7 Oct 2022)

[2] https://www.travelinglifestyle.net/countries-offering-digital-nomad-visas-and-residency/

[3]  With the option to renew for an additional 12 months.

[4] Coined by Tim Ferriss in his book “4 Hour Workweek”, the term geographical arbitrage, or more commonly geoarbitrage, refers to the practice of taking advantage of currency and cost of living differences between countries for a higher quality of life.

Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.


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