SINGAPORE: On Monday (May 17), the World Economic Forum (WEF) announced it would cancel its meeting in Singapore.
Originally intended for May 2021 and then delayed for three months, the WEF cited the uncertain and worsening COVID-19 situation in many countries of the world in its decision to hold the next meeting sometime in the first half of 2022.
While the announcement was welcomed on the basis of safety, there is a collective sense of regret.
The WEF is one of the biggest events on the international calendar. It brings together business, government, academic and social leaders from around the world.
It is a platform that focuses the greatest minds on the most pressing issues of global importance to shape national and multinational agendas. The convergence of leaders in a world forum creates hope that these same leaders can chart an agenda that can better people’s lives.
A SETBACK FOR THE GLOBAL FIGHT ON COVID-19
The cancellation of the WEF meeting not only eliminates the chance for important face-to-face discussions about pandemic management, but also has knock-on symbolic effects that makes this decision a huge pity.
When the world’s leaders across multiple strata of society cannot find a way to meet in a common venue, they send the signal that the world’s elites are unable to surmount challenges that occupy the minds and lives of normal people in the world and inadvertently reinforce the depth of these challenges.
Yet now, more than ever, there is a need for leadership and multilateral decision- making to guide our world’s recovery from this devastating global pandemic.
The optimism that has just begun to emerge with the onset of vaccination drives has been curtailed by word of the WEF’s cancellation.
Moreover, the cancellation quells an emerging confidence that we could start viewing public policy initiatives on a multilateral basis. Understandably, but with some sense of regret, Singapore has to close its doors to prioritise its fight against the latest wave.
The ensuing pessimism and soured mood could have knock-on effects for global collective will to fight this pandemic. It will be more difficult to enact policies that restrict personal movement, curtail transmission of the virus and keep the support of their populaces.
Worse, if countries continue to face the pandemic on a national basis instead of focusing on galvanising international cooperation, the downsides of COVID-19 become more pronounced.
A STEP BACK FOR SINGAPORE’S ROLE AS A PLATFORM FOR INTERNATIONAL DIALOGUE
The host city-state, Singapore, also stands to lose the gains it had hoped to make in at least two ways.
First, Singapore has been emerging as an important meeting location for international leaders.
The so-called Singapore Summit in 2018, that brought together North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former United States President Donald Trump, was arguably the most prominent meeting held in Singapore, up to the WEF.
With a heated China-US relationship and other rising regional tensions, Singapore has a chance to increase the importance of its role as a mediator and neutral venue for international relations. It is also scheduled to host some of the world’s top defence leaders and officials in annual Shangri-la Dialogue in June.
Singapore already has substantial prominence on the global stage with its regional economic leadership. To that, it had a chance to better position itself as a place for global meditation of politics and international relations and for thought leadership to some of the world’s pressing concerns.
With the WEF being pulled from Singapore, its aspirations in this regard must take a step backward. The cancellation of the WEF means one fewer major forum Singapore could have stamped its mark on in hosting.
It must be said that although Singapore bears the brunt of reputational risk, we must understand how the organisers cancelled the meeting independent of exploring alternatives such as a hybrid model in Singapore.
This stark action stands in contrast to the Tokyo Olympics where the organisers are fighting desperately against substantial negative public sentiment to continue to hold the games.
Clearly, the world’s elite do not have the same level of commitment to contribute to an international event.
CONCERN OVER SINGAPORE’S FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19
Second, Singapore has been widely touted as one of the countries that has best fought the pandemic.
Until the May 2021 re-emergence of the pathogen in Singapore, its leaders and senior administrators had gained well-earned credit for a sensible set of well-implemented policies, leading to Bloomberg headlining Singapore as the best place to be in the world during the pandemic.
Yet, as with any invisible enemy, COVID-19 has the ability to sneak through even the most well-devised defences.
The canning of the WEF unfortunately puts a brake on some of the international accolades accorded to Singapore.
Even though announcements place the WEF decision as being rooted in a worsening of the global pandemic, the timing of the decision coming the week after Singapore announced plans to heighten restrictions and shift back into Phase 2 could not have been more unfortunate for Singapore.
The coexistence of the cancellation and COVID-19’s increased prevalence in Singapore has created a sense of causality.
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After all, as Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan had highlighted in Parliament, one of the key reasons Singapore was chosen as host in the first place was its ability to provide the world’s elite with a safe bubble to brainstorm fighting global challenges.
One interpretation, even if it is simplistic, is that Singapore, like many others, struggle to control the pandemic within its borders. Justified or not, the cancellation does cast a shadow on the city-state’s global reputation for efficiency and control.
A CHANCE TO LEAD AGAIN
We now know COVID-19 is a new reality of our world. We may live forever with COVID-19 as we live with the flu, the cold and other globally endemic viruses.
The goal cannot be eradication, it must be oriented to some level of manageable control – which is what Singapore had been doing well until this month.
Now that the task of hosting a global event is off Singapore’s plate, it is a good time to get back to the uphill task at hand: How to effectively manage this current wave of community infections.
While the benefits to Singapore from the WEF are lost, new ones can be gained.
Singapore’s leaders must articulate clear goals in defining the effective management of COVID-19. Leaders must evoke confidence and inspire people to vaccinate to build population resistance sooner, not later.
Leaders must build the vision of what a post-pandemic Singapore will be like – something that has already started with the work of the Emerging Stronger Task Force.
Singapore has shown it can manage a crisis. The concurrence of a resurgent COVID-19 in Singapore along with the deletion of the WEF could well-represent an inflection point for Singapore’s leaders.
Now there is an opportunity to build not only economic resilience, but also to lead and inspire social resilience to the pandemic, thereby reinforcing the social contract between a country’s people and its elected leadership.
Andrew Delios is Vice Dean, MSc Programmes Office and Professor of Strategy & Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.