TOKYO/SINGAPORE -- The World Economic Forum will trade snowy Swiss scenery for teleconference screens this week, as government and business leaders gather online to prepare for an in-person "Davos in Asia" summit in Singapore in May.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are among the big names from Asia on an extensive list of "Davos Agenda" meetings starting Monday. The theme of the week is "rebuilding trust" and setting a course for recovery from COVID-19. Looming over the sessions, however, is the question of whether it will be safe and feasible to convene in Singapore just a few months from now, as infections continue to surge worldwide.
"Trust is needed in order to overcome the crisis, but [also] as a base to have a future-oriented mind and construct the world for tomorrow," Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF, told reporters at a virtual briefing on Jan. 18. That trust, he stressed, requires global cooperation and engagement of all stakeholders.
"I'm so happy to say that, like in the previous year, the global leadership from all walks of life is coming together in the forthcoming Davos Agenda," Schwab said.
Normally, global luminaries would be flying into the Swiss ski resort of Davos right about now for the annual WEF summit. Last year, the 50th anniversary event attracted around 3,000 political, business and civil society leaders.
But the coronavirus pandemic that swept the world prompted a decision to delay and move the 2021 event to Singapore, deemed one of the places best-equipped to mitigate the health risks. This week's virtual sessions, which run through Friday, are expected to draw over 1,500 participants and build "important momentum for [the Singapore] meeting," the organizer said.
On top of COVID-19, the environment will be a key focus, including decarbonizing supply chains and delivering a green carbon market. Discussions will also delve into "stakeholder capitalism" -- a vision of capitalism, long advocated by Schwab, that is designed to benefit everyone rather than just shareholders.
The Davos Agenda program and the switch to Singapore highlight Asia's growing economic clout. "We know that this year is a year where Asia takes on 50% of global GDP. Asia also has 50% of global population," WEF President Borge Brende said at the Jan. 18 briefing.
Xi will deliver an address on Monday, making a comeback after last appearing at Davos in 2017. Modi, Japan's Yoshihide Suga, Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong and South Korea's Moon Jae-in are all scheduled to appear this week as well.
The online lineup packs enough star power to raise the question of why an in-person summit is needed at all. But the WEF insists on the significance of meeting face to face to enhance global cooperation.
"Person-to-person contacts are important to create an even higher level of trust," Schwab said. This, he added, is "why we supplement the Davos Agenda week also with the Singapore meeting, which will be the first in-person summit in the world" since the coronavirus outbreak began.
"I don't think anyone is better positioned than the World Economic Forum in Singapore to really make sure that we do achieve really concrete results in these areas," Brende said. "And we know that Singapore also has the facilities to do so. We put health and safety at the forefront, and we also have good discussions on the best venue and making sure that all our participants will be safe."
And so the pressure is on Singapore to pull off a big event in the global spotlight, with no guarantee that vaccinations will have made enough of an impact by May. Officials in the city-state have said that the WEF's decision reflects confidence in their management of the virus thus far.
In 2020, an explosion of infections in densely packed dormitories for foreign workers sent Singapore's cases surging toward 60,000. But after bringing the situation under control, the city-state has kept a lid on infection spikes.
Still, locally transmitted cases have been creeping up again, albeit in the single digits. Officials acknowledge that the virus is likely still making the rounds quietly, leading some to argue that hosting Davos is too risky. The WEF, for its part, insists that the event will be safe and successful if it goes ahead.
"It is a major gamble, in my opinion, especially given the alternatives," said Abhineet Kaul, Asia-Pacific operations head for public sector and government consulting at Frost and Sullivan. "[Assuming] the agenda of the session is not any short-term crisis ... such meetings can be done virtually with zero human interactions."
Singaporean officials have offered assurances that safety measures will be in place, including protocols to control mingling between overseas delegates and local residents.
"Attendees will adhere to prevailing public health requirements and safe management measures, and these include a rigorous testing regime, including pre-departure and on-arrival testing" for COVID-19, Alvin Tan, Singapore's minister of state for trade and industry, told parliament earlier this month.
"To minimize the risk of seeding local transmissions, we will also put in place measures to manage the interactions between the local community and the event attendees," he added, explaining that "contingency plans" were still being worked out.
Still, Frost's Kaul believes there is no need for a physical gathering, given the multiple fast-spreading virus strains now circulating globally.
"Even if we can manage interactions between the local community and event delegates, there is a risk of spread among the delegates, who will spread it back in their countries," he said. "Let's not forget COVID-19 was transmitted by rich people across the world."