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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Glooming Davos World Economic Forum 2012!

Davos parties amid the gloom


The notable absence of a big Chinese delegation at the Davos World Economic Forum due to the Chinese New Year season gave the South-East Asian nations the opportunity to shine. 

I’M hardly your quintessential Davos Man but I do enjoy my trips to the World Economic Forum (WEF), where I chair the Global Agenda Council on South-east Asia.

It’s not only the chance to hobnob with the global elite, but also get a sense of where the world is heading.

Davos this year was a blur, though. Perhaps it was because my schedule was packed, or maybe it was because I was recovering from the flu.

Whatever the cause, my week in Switzerland was a whirr of images and sensations.

The sense of gloom among the world’s players seemed to have become de rigueur after years of slow growth.

Nevertheless, it didn’t put a stop to the countless expensive networking parties at WEF.

I guess austerity doesn’t apply to the rich and powerful.

Also notable was the absence of a big Chinese delegation because of the Chinese New Year season.

This gave the chance for other East Asian nations to shine.

Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra led a large, well-received delegation.

After the twin distractions of political conflict and natural disaster, Thailand appears eager to promote the idea of its economic recovery.

Shinawatra’s good looks more than compensated for the hesitancy in her delivery.

Indonesia, too, had a large contingent despite the absence of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a welcome sign that Indonesia’s corporate leaders are ready to engage the rest of the world alone.

I also spent time with a small Burmese entourage.

They were basking in the country’s apparent rehabilitation, and we made plans to meet again in the future.

We Malaysians also hosted our own breakfast.

It was attended by some 20 powerful international corporate and political leaders.

The Malaysian star of the Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady, Michelle Yeoh also made an appearance to add both glamour and intelligence to the event – but I’m a fan and therefore biased.

Still, it was good to see that there was interest in Malaysia, particularly as a services hub.

I also noted that the delegations from African nations were large although they pulled little weight compared to India or Brazil.

The events featuring British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner caused little stir.

Conversely, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota had a swagger about him as EU technocrats lobbied the BRICs for help to save Europe.

Still, there was an uneasy sense in the air that Europe’s fall is facilitating Germany’s rise.

You could see German products everywhere, including the shiny Audis shuttling the VIPs between Davos and Klosters and VW vans for everyone else.

I even picked up a special edition Stern magazine celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, which hailed him as an “uber-Prussian”.

Indeed, there seems to be a growing nostalgia in Germany for Frederick, who solidified Prussia’s power but was also renowned for his intellectual and cultural achievements, including founding Potsdam and patronising Voltaire.

Perhaps he reminds Germans of a time when they too were on the brink of great power, albeit untarnished by fascism.

Is it more than a coincidence that chancellor Angela Merkel has described herself as “very Prussian” and has not shied away from promoting “German values”?

Whatever the case, Berlin with its Prussian milieu will almost certainly take its place as Europe’s premier capital – which means that this tukang cerita (story teller) will have to brave the Brandenburg winter at some stage to get a sense of the city as well as German aspirations.

There were also encounters, whether planned or chance.

At Davos’ Indonesia Night, I wolfed down nasi goreng with Mukhlis of Antara and Uni Lubis of ANTV, discussing the possibility of the republic developing its own “soft power”.

At a quiet bar later on, I gossiped with my Financial Times columnist friend Gideon Rachman about the prospect of a Eurozone collapse.

I even remember trying to locate the Occupy WEF igloos. I spent a good hour trudging through the snow (which was metres high, by the way), before giving up because of the cold and damp.

One afternoon I slipped away from the conference and took the small funicular train to the Schaltzalp Hotel high above Davos.

There – amid the echoing halls of a fin de siecle “grand” hotel – I imagined the world of Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann as well as the immense, enveloping silence of the Alpine scenery, swathed in snow as I stood on the hotel’s terrace.

Finally, there was a moment when I was collecting my overcoat at the Morosani Schweizershof hotel’s cloakroom.

I paused because I remembered that it was here, last year that I saw Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Back then, Gaddafi was the gadfly of the Arab and African worlds, while Saif was his modernising son and the toast of policy wonks everywhere.

Today the father is buried somewhere in the Libyan desert and Saif is in a prison in Zintan.
It’s a sign of how times change, but also how swiftly Davos moves on.

You can be everybody’s golden boy one minute and a pariah in the next. But that’s how the world turns.

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