Hosting WEF 'a feather in the cap' for Singapore: Experts

Singapore's Marina Bay area before sunset:in September 2020.
Singapore's Marina Bay area before sunset:in September 2020.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Hosting the World Economic Forum's (WEF) next annual gathering of global political and business leaders bodes well for Singapore's tourism and events sectors, said experts on Tuesday (Dec 8).

Public health experts also said that if handled properly, the WEF Special Annual Meeting 2021, slated for May 13 to 16, would be a testament to Singapore's ability to manage Covid-19 measures for such a signature event. The WEF meeting typically attracts about 3,000 delegates to its usual location in Davos, Switzerland.

The switch to Singapore next year because of its handling of the virus puts the city-state firmly on the map, said Maybank Kim Eng analyst Chua Hak Bin.

He added that having all the world's attention on the South-east Asian country presents an opportunity for Singapore to prove it has emerged from the pandemic unscathed, and is ready to resume business as usual as a connectivity hub for the rest of the world.

This is only the second time the WEF meeting will take place outside of Davos since it began in 1971. The 2002 edition was held in New York, as a show of solidarity with the US after the Sept 11 attacks.

Mr Benjamin Chiang, Asean government and public sector leader at EY, noted that the choice made by WEF was an "intangible vote of confidence" in Singapore as a meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (Mice) destination capable of managing the pandemic.

CIMB Private Bank economist Song Seng Wun said that while the "exciting, headline-grabbing" news was worth celebrating, another measure of success would be if it can coax the tourism and Mice industries back on their feet by getting people confident enough to travel to Singapore without hesitation.

"It's the bread-and-butter, regular, routine events in Singapore - whether food festivals or anime conventions - that contribute to monthly tourism receipts," he noted. "So while hosting WEF is a feather in the cap for Singapore, more importantly, it's the reassurance it gives others that all events can be held here - safely."

Industry stakeholders agreed that the decision was a major endorsement of Singapore's capabilities as a leading global Mice hub.

This, said Mr Aloysius Arlando, president of the Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers (SACEOS), would hopefully lead to more job and business opportunities - and in turn, help Singapore's economic growth along.

On the geopolitical front, Dr Chong Ja Ian, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department, said: "There may be some agreements named after Singapore, but I do not expect larger, long-lasting effects... That said, the sitting administration in Singapore may wish to use the event to showcase Singapore as a location for similar events in future."

This year's gathering in Davos, in January, was attended by the likes of outgoing US President Donald Trump and teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Previous attendees include other world and major corporate leaders such as Prince William, Mark Zuckerberg as well as celebrities from David Attenborough to U2's Bono.

"As to who will attend physically next year, that will depend on how the Covid-19 situation and vaccination programmes play out. To the extent that the pandemic is controlled, there is more likely to be physical appearances," said Dr Chong.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry reiterated that the health and safety of the local community and meeting attendees was "of utmost importance".

"Attendees will be required to adhere to the prevailing stringent public health requirements, and safe management and distancing measures in Singapore," the spokesman added.

Dr Jeremy Lim, from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at NUS, said there was no "magic number" of attendees that Singapore could safely host. It would depend on Singapore's testing and contact tracing abilities, along with strategies for managing and hosting the guests, he added.

"Everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated. And we probably need to have a tiered testing regime based on countries - similar to what Singapore has been doing," he noted. "Hosting the WEF is a higher risk than not hosting the WEF. So it's really about managing the risk, and at essentially three points.

"One - making sure, to the best of our abilities, no one with Covid-19 comes into Singapore. Second - anyone who has Covid and somehow slips through is detected early enough to minimise transmission. And third - if there is transmission, we detect it early enough that we can lock down all the persons who have been in contact, so that we can contain any secondary, tertiary spread."

Said Professor Dale Fisher from the NUS' Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine: "We've got all these tools to prevent spread, and it'll be a combination of tests or interventions to make this particular conference safe. I'm quite sure that Singapore will not let this become a 'superspreader' event."

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