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Travel & Leisure

Singapore trains to be in fighting shape for Davos 2021

MMA events and concerts serve as warm-up for COVID-era World Economic Forum

SINGAPORE -- Mixed martial arts may be far from the rarefied air of Davos, but fights are one way that Singapore is preparing to host the world's leading business and political figures next May.

While the roar of the crowd was gone -- only 250 people watched in an arena that seats 12,000 -- the Dec. 18 matches hosted by One Championship gathered fighters from countries including Japan, Thailand and Russia.

The toned-down spectacle shows how Asian destination Singapore is trying to revive its entertainment and conference industries while preventing international gatherings from becoming coronavirus superspreader events.

As it looks to host the World Economic Forum's May 2021 annual meeting, the city state is pursuing a gradual reopening. Steps include requiring all attendants to take coronavirus tests.

The MMA event, though in a different class, showed how some of these measures work in practice.

With cheers from the audience barely audible, the breathing of the fighters just 20 meters away could be heard. Those spectators were allowed in only after showing a negative result from a COVID-19 antigen test.

One Championship President Hua Fung Teh has been pushing to hold martial arts matches with spectators. (Photo by Takashi Nakano)

Spectators were checked as early as four and a half hours before the event at a temporary testing site set up near the arena, and results were sent to their smartphones in about 15 minutes. The fighters from abroad not only had to be tested several times during their stay in Singapore, but were basically barred from leaving their hotel rooms. They could work out only in hotel training areas during designated times.

This marked the third time since the pandemic broke out that One Championship hosted an event with international fighters in front of an audience. While there have been cases in which a fighter or staff member tested COVID-19 positive after arriving in Singapore, the events went on as scheduled.

One Championship Group President Hua Fung Teh said that preparations were made for months with many people involved, including the Singaporean government, the arena and hotels, so that the event could be held safely.

Like other countries, Singapore shifted to virtual events after the coronavirus spread around the world, but it moved to in-person events and international conferences in August.

After first holding events with a maximum attendance of 50, it increased the capacity to 250 in October. Precautions were in place to prevent cluster infections, such as splitting the spectators into groups that were not allowed to interact. For concerts held at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands on Dec. 18-19, the audience was required to be tested for COVID-19.

Singapore has largely succeeded in curbing new infections of COVID-19, and has even logged several days with no new cases in the community at large. The government began allowing tables of up to eight at restaurants on Monday, up from the previous cap of five. It has put in place a "travel bubble" that allows small numbers of important business and other travelers to come to the country.

But the city-state maintains strict protocols to prevent new infections. Its cautiousness stems from the bitter experiencing of being forced to lock down for roughly two months starting in April over a massive outbreak among migrant workers.

The Davos forum is seen as a culmination of these efforts. Holding the meeting in Singapore "is an affirmation of Singapore's ability to provide a safe, neutral and conducive venue for global leaders to meet," Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said.

Singapore has hosted numerous international gatherings over the years, including the historic 2018 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Davos forum is an opportunity for the country to prove itself as a venue of choice in a post-pandemic world as well.

But this likely also means that Singapore will be maintaining tight restrictions on events until at least May, so it can prevent any surge in cases that could derail Davos. Singapore's experience could influence what the new normal in international meetings and events will look like.

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