Davos - Big ideas in small Alpine town at the World Economic Forum

A participant speaks on his mobile phone between sessions during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Jan 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A participant speaks on his mobile phone between sessions during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Jan 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Touch down, 7.43am.

My Singapore Airlines flight landed at Zurich airport ahead of time. A short ride on the train took me to the immigration and baggage terminal. My luggage was on the carousel when I got there.

The transport to take me to Davos was waiting, and within half an hour of landing, we were on our way, making the two-and-half-hour road trip to the Swiss mountain resort for the 2014 World Economic Forum meeting.

Highly impressed by the Swiss efficiency, I sent a text to friends and family back home to marvel at the clockwork reliability of it all.

"Yes, the Swiss are a little like Singapore," someone shot back.

That made me laugh. It was not so long ago that Singapore aspired to attain the Swiss standard of living, not the other way round.

That was back in the early 1980s. To keep things real, government leaders set their sights only on attaining the levels the Swiss enjoyed in 1984, and to do so by 1999.

We did not quite pull it off. The Asian financial crisis, and various other things, meant the target slipped a little and it was only a couple of years later that we passed the mark. By then, the Swiss had moved further ahead, of course.

Looking back, it is not hard to see why Singapore's leaders, not least then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, might have been impressed by the Swiss model. Here was a relatively small country, locked between bigger and more powerful neighbours, having to find its way independently in the world by making itself relevant to it, and relying to a large extent on the wits and will of its people.

And most of all, everything - from the airport to the trains to its banks - seemed to work.

The annual Davos meetings, which draw thousands of well-heeled and respected business and political leaders from around the world, is an example of that.

After all, there is no inherent reason why all these busy people would want to travel to a small resort town, hardly the prettiest or most enticing, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest airport, and in the depths of winter, to spend a few days attending a few panel discussions.

Important people come because other important people are coming, and that draws others who are important, or aspire to be so. It is the best example of the so-called "network effect" in action.

This year's attendee list includes Prime Ministers, Presidents and ministers from Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Britain, Australia, among others, and corporate chiefs from many of the world's largest companies.

It helps that everything seems to run like Swiss clockwork - from the airport transfers to the shuttle connections around town to the hotels and Alpine lodges which are more used to hosting laid back families on ski holidays but step up smartly to meet the needs of some of the world's most demanding travellers.

Many have tried to re-create the so-called Davos spirit, with its relaxed, informal, yet serious-minded discussions on the world's most pressing issues among like-minded participants supposedly "committed to improving the state of the world", but few have managed to match it.

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