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WEF in Singapore

Singapore scores as COVID moves Davos forum from Alps to tropics

First WEF in Asia raises hopes for reboot of crucial convention business

Singapore's hot and humid climate will provide a decidedly different backdrop for the 2021 World Economic Forum.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- The 2021 World Economic Forum will be a snow-free affair, with the event making a temporary move from the Swiss ski town of Davos to sunny Singapore.

The city-state is no stranger to hosting conferences but faces its biggest test yet, as global business and political luminaries are expected to gather in person from May 13 to 16 despite continued uncertainty over COVID-19. Forum organizers said on Monday that they had decided Singapore is "best placed" to play host, given its low daily infection count while Switzerland's is in the thousands.

While the virus clearly spurred the venue change, the choice of an Asian city can also be taken as a reflection of the region's increasingly central role in the global economy.

"With Singapore in Asia, it might be seen as symbolic in that manner," Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking, told Nikkei Asia. "We are a neutral city-state. We organize and can hold events securely, efficiently, effectively ... [even] against the background of a pandemic."

Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "It is a vote of confidence in Singapore, both in its ability to deliver the event and as a neutral convening venue," said Mills, whose chamber represents around 600 local and foreign companies.

This will be only the second main WEF summit held outside Switzerland and the first in Asia; the event was once held in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mills added that for Singapore, the WEF meeting is a high-profile opportunity to reboot the local events industry.

World leaders and executives normally gather here in Davos, Switzerland, each January.   © Reuters

Meetings are a big business for the island financial hub. Before the pandemic, conferences were considered a major visitor draw, sustaining more than 34,000 jobs in the nation of about 5.7 million people and adding 3.8 billion Singapore dollars ($2.79 billion) of economic value -- around 1% of gross domestic product.

There were already some headwinds before COVID hit, as global economic uncertainty prompted cutbacks in what insiders call the business travel and meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions sector -- or BTMICE for short.

BTMICE receipts dipped 7% on the year to SG$3.2 billion in the first nine months of 2019, according to the Singapore Tourism Board, with visitor arrivals for this segment falling 8% to 1.8 million.

The pandemic dashed any hopes for a quick rebound in 2020, as global travel screeched to a halt and countries imposed social distancing restrictions. This forced all kinds of global events to go online instead, including last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum hosted by Singapore's neighbor, Malaysia.

Singapore was slammed mid-year as the virus ripped through densely packed dormitories for foreign workers and sent cases surging toward 60,000. But it has turned the crisis around, recording zero local transmissions on some days in recent weeks.

Now Singaporean officials talk about creating a global hub for "hybrid" conventions that combine online and in-person elements, offering greater economic payouts as well as wider participation with limited infection risks. The Singapore Fintech Festival being held this week -- featuring speakers including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates -- is an example of a hybrid conference with some in-person sessions.

The not-in-Davos Davos meeting is expected to be a showcase for this strategy.

Singapore's Changi airport in October: COVID-19 has upended the city's economic model as a hub for trade, travel and international events.   © Reuters

"We expect the [WEF] meeting to provide a boost for Singapore businesses, particularly those operating in the MICE industry, as well as adjacent sectors such as tourism, hospitality, food and beverage and transportation," said Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation.

Come May, coronavirus vaccines might or might not be widely available. Either way, officials stress that health and safety will be the top priority at the WEF, both for local citizens and forum attendees. Measures are likely to include extensive testing -- including on arrival, pre-event and periodic checks -- as well as contact tracing. Officials say they have "successfully prototyped" plans to counter COVID risks at recent events.

"WEF's decision to hold its 2021 Special Annual 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 in a statement late on Monday after the forum organizers announced their plans.

"Despite the ongoing pandemic, we are confident that Singapore will be able to continue maintaining public health and safety while supporting the WEF's mission to effect positive change through collaboration and engagement."

Still, CIMB's Song said the pressure is on to keep a clean track record between now and next spring. If the city-state pulls it off, he thinks it could have a real competitive advantage.

"If you can show that you are going to be safe and seamless ... then obviously it will give a leg up over other venues elsewhere as we try to get the pandemic under control."

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