Analysis: Why the World Economic Forum shift from Davos to SG isn't just a by-product of COVID-19

Three years after the first Trump-Kim summit, another high profile event will be rolling into Singapore this May, as the city state plays host to the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Special Annual Meeting 2021. First announced last December, WEF said the change in location from Davos-Klosters, Switzerland to Singapore reflects the forum's priority of safeguarding the health and safety of participants and the host community. 

The Special Annual Meeting 2021 in Singapore will be the first global leadership event to address worldwide recovery from the pandemic. According to WEF, Singapore was chosen after careful consideration and in light of the current COVID-19 cases. That said, WEF will digitally convene high-level "Davos Dialogues" on the week of 25 January where key global leaders will share their views on the state of the world in 2021.

The forum's shift to Singapore will undoubtedly put a spotlight on Asia Pacific, and create a halo effect for the countries surrounding Singapore in the ASEAN region, signalling the rise of the Asian economy. The International Monetary Fund expects a 8.2% year-on-year (YoY) GDP growth for China, 6.0% for India, and 2.4% for Japan in 2021. GDP growth for ASEAN is predicted to be at 6.1% YoY.

While some might see the shift of the forum to Singapore as a by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic, S4 Capital's chairman Martin Sorrell told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE in a phone interview that the consequence of the global pandemic does not discount the growing importance of the Asian economy. While he believes the location change is expedient, holding the forum in Singapore signals the importance of Asia Pacific and will further raise the profile of the region.

Sorrell also views the move to host the forum in Singapore as a clear attempt to deal with the central global economic issue - the growing conflict between the US and China. With trade tensions between the US and China showing no signs of easing up, even with the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Sorrell said the forum "offers an opportunity for dialogue between the East and West". While he expects Biden to pursue a multilateral approach as opposed to the "more unilateral and unpredictable approach" under President Donald Trump, "the WEF forum could play an important role in developing that dialogue which is critical in understanding that sanctions and more tension is not the way forward".

"Clearly, these tensions over trade are not going to do any good in the long run and have to be dealt with. The best way to deal with them is not by decoupling or continuous antagonism but by constructive dialogue. It is important for the forum to be seen as [a platform for constructive dialogue] and to change what it does and how it does it. Singapore gives them an opportunity to do that," Sorrell explained.  

Sorrell added that in future, there could even be a meeting in Davos that is balanced out by a meeting in the East in Singapore, which would be a positive move to indicate the shifting economies.

"Davos now talks about the great reset, which is a phrase that has been used in many of the sessions. Part of the great reset can be the WEF resetting itself and repositioning itself. So the decision to move the forum to Singapore is a very big signal," Sorrell said. Citing the one-off example of WEF shifting its forum to New York in 2002 after 9/11 to show solidarity with the Americans, he adds that the location change this time around should be considered in a more permanent manner.

“You can't just do it once. I think the format needs to be more inclusive and with the Singapore government placing more emphasis on the digital economy, WEF should make sessions available for those who are unable to make it but still wish to be involved in the various dialogues. That said, the strength of Brand Singapore should not be underestimated as it has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic in a relatively stronger position. I think the forum going to Singapore has a significant impact," he added.

Meanwhile, INSEAD professor of marketing Amitava Chattopadhyay said how much WEF benefits Singapore’s brand image will depend on how the country manages the event to showcase its achievements like the excellent job it has done to manage the pandemic, the city’s infrastructure, and its overall smooth and frictionless functioning.

It will also depend on ensuring a smooth and positive experience for the delegates.

"In other words, [organisers] could integrate the event and the city’s strengths, while at the same time provide excellent hospitality and event management, to link the WEF and Singapore together. This is to ensure that the WEF associations transfer to brand Singapore, and a significant part of the buzz is generated by the delegates from their experience of attending the event," he explained. 

However, what happens to the perception of the ASEAN region will depend on the top news stories in the region at the time and how well the positive stories are connected to the WEF, while managing the fallout of any negative stories.

"If I were to draw a parallel, one thinks of Switzerland when one thinks of the WEF, not Europe as a whole. However, one may pay more attention to Europe leading up to and during the event. If so, news from neighbouring countries are more likely to influence one at that time, albeit less so than events in Switzerland and Davos," he added.

While it is possible that the special meeting could become a forerunner for a regular summer meeting in Singapore, Chattopadhyay said the Special Annual Meeting 2021 is not a substitute for Davos. This is because dialogues are still being held virtually this month and the location change was likely driven by Singapore's excellent handling of COVID-19. 

Like Chattopadhyay, Arturo Bris, professor of finance at IMD Business School in Switzerland and Singapore, said how the forum will impact Brand Singapore as a whole depends on how the event unfolds and whether the country can show its ability to organise such a big event. This requires efforts in technology, infrastructure, security, cybersecurity, and hospitality. "WEF has chosen Singapore because it gives the right conditions, but the risk is that organisational failures make everybody question such choice. I think Singapore is ready for the challenge," he added.

Nonetheless, the location shift also greatly signifies that "the WEF is responding to the center of gravity of the world economy moving East", since COVID-19 has made it more difficult for several dignitaries to fly to the centre of Europe. This is especially given Davos is a small, landlocked village where health and security measures are difficult to implement. And in such a scenario, the choice of Singapore is natural given "Singapore represents very well the WEF ideals of collaboration between the public and the private sector, sound institutions, and competitiveness as a driving force of policy", Bris explained.

ASEAN will still benefit from forum being held in Singapore, as 90% of the world's GDP will be drawn to the region for a few days.

According to Bris, this allows companies and leaders in neighbouring countries to improve relationships and attract business to Asia. At the same time, there is a clear message that Asia is now the center of the world from a corporate standpoint.

"It is another sign of the increasing importance that Asian markets is gaining in the recent years. The post-covid world is one where most of the economic growth is going to come from both developed and developing Asia, so any global company needs a foothold in this market," he said.

Photo courtesy: 123RF

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