Singapore’s tough response to the pandemic has persuaded the World Economic Forum to move its marquee event away from Davos for only the second time. Now the Lion City wants to become the leading international business hub of 2021 – and beyond. By John Arlidge in Singapore
People don’t pack flip-flops for Davos, but they will this year. The World Economic Forum will host its annual gathering of the world’s business and political leaders in Singapore in May after rising Covid-19 cases made it impossible to stage the event in its traditional home in Davos in January. Klaus Schwab, WEF founder, is trying to put a brave face on the first non-Alpine summit in the past two decades, declaring it ‘a special forum for leaders from business, government and civil society to meet in person for the first time since the start of the global pandemic’. The trouble is, the number of people allowed to attend has been halved to around 1,500, which will hit the WEF hard in the pocket. Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per executive for a hallowed access-all-areas white badge.
While Schwab is hurting, the opposite goes for the man in the grey suit and red tie who greets me at 8.45am in a meeting room at the giant Marina Bay Sands hotel and conference centre that dominates the Lion City’s skyline. Chan Chun Sing is Singapore’s minister for trade and industry and Covid has given him an opportunity he neither expected nor wanted, but one he is now determined to grab with both hands. ‘Necessity breeds invention,’ he says. ‘People are looking around for a safe place to fly to and meet and, despite the ongoing pandemic, we are confident Singapore can be that place.’ He toiled for months to persuade Schwab that Singapore could ‘maintain public health and safety while supporting the WEF’s mission to effect positive change through collaboration’.
The tiny city state, which built its crazy rich fortune as a global trading hub, has been hard hit by international travel restrictions. The economy shrank by 42.9 per cent on an annualised basis in the second quarter of 2020. But Chan spies opportunity amid the gloom. He wants to leverage his home town’s infamously strict social rules and reputation for hi-tech efficiency to kickstart – and profit from – Covid-safe global travel and trade.
‘Whoever can ensure visitors’ health security will gain competitive advantage. There’s a tremendous opportunity for Singapore,’ he told delegates in November who attended the first large conference in Asia since March. Some 1,000 socially distanced delegates took part in the TravelRevive meeting.
In late 2020, visitors were already beginning to fly in and out of Singapore’s Changi airport from all destinations, including some in which infection rates remain high, with no need to quarantine for more than a few hours. All visitors used to have to quarantine for two weeks in approved hotels, which all but killed travel. Now, though, they can be approved to fly in under Chan’s new Safe Travel Pass system, which admits a certain number of visitors from each country depending on the infection rate there. ‘We will constantly assess and manage risk,’ he says.
The scheme, which has cost hundreds of millions of pounds to develop in partnership with Singapore Airlines, Changi airport and the city state’s hoteliers, ‘will start with business travellers and expand later to leisure’, Chan says. He thinks he can attract business travellers because most countries do not demand that returning passengers quarantine.
Singapore brought the virus under control quickly by combining strict social control measures with a rigorous test and trace programme. That allowed the economy gradually to reopen from mid-June, with daily cases of infection in the community dwindling to low single digits or even zero.
I attended the TravelRevive conference in November to trial the new Safe Travel Pass system. I had to have a negative PCR Covid test 2-3 days before departure and another on arrival at Changi, which has just completed construction of a laboratory that can handle 10,000 tests a day. The tests are expensive – around £150 a go – and uncomfortable (the testers have to venture to parts of your nose you’d rather did not know exist).
Before leaving London, I had to fill out my arrival forms online – paper arrival and departure forms have been replaced by digital ones ‘to create the world’s first touch-free airport’, officials say. I flew on Singapore Airlines, which along with Qatar Airlines has the strictest anti-Covid protocols. Crew, who are all tested regularly for Covid, wear masks and face shields, and the aircraft cabin is cleaned constantly during flight. When I landed I had to download a tracing app on my iPhone to gain entry to the conference and any public building or transport hub – as well as to receive a warning if I had been near someone who tested positive.
I was bussed from Changi to my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, where I had to remain in my room until I got my test result. I was warned that some hotels programme the room key cards for single use to identify those who break quarantine, so I stayed put. I got my result – negative – by email five hours after landing and was free to go out in the city and use Covid-safe taxis to meet contacts at approved Covid-safe hotels and restaurants.
I had a lunch meeting at Raffles hotel, dinner at Burnt Ends and meetings in private homes and offices in the Holland Road and Orchard Road districts. Working over meals worked best because my guest and I could remove our masks. Mask-wearing is strictly enforced in all public spaces except when eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant, or when exercising. The tracing app worked perfectly, first time every time.
I had to brace myself for a rapid antigen test at the conference each morning and wait 15 minutes for the result to reaffirm I was Covid-negative. If I had stayed longer than a few days, I could have had a third PCR test a week after arrival, which, if negative, gives visitors the freedom to go wherever they want within the country. If I had tested positive at any time, I would have been given high-quality local medical care – for which I would need to pay using my travel insurance.
Because safety rules mean the number of delegates at this year’s new-style Davos and other future conferences will have to be lower than normal, Chan is working with conference organisers to create hybrid – half in-person, half online – events to increase their reach. He will have to try harder if TravelRevive is anything to go by. The delegate speakers attending by hologram were not nearly realistic enough. Audio often lagged behind the video, making panel discussions stilted.
When I left Singapore at the end of TravelRevive, I did not require a departing Covid test because I had already had four negative ones in less than a week. For those who have not been tested, Singapore is working on a test with results in 15 minutes that could be done at the airport. Before I boarded the Airbus A350 home, Chan assured me all the data I’d generated during my trip would remain private. ‘Is this the Stalinist model? No, no, nobody’s thinking of that,’ he laughed.
Does Singapore’s travel fling work? So far, so good. Local cases of infection remain low. Is it worth the hassle? Oh yes, said a man I met on the way home. Last summer Martin Bowen, chief legal officer for Dyson, had to quarantine for two weeks in Singapore before he could sign two legal documents that needed a handwritten signature – an e-signature would not suffice – before flying straight home. Sir James Dyson is investing £2 billion in hi-tech research and manufacturing in the city. ‘James really owes me one for that!’ he laughed as he landed at Heathrow fresh from his first quarantine-free trip.