SINGAPORE - Marina Bay Sands, Singapore's second casino resort and already a
US$5.7 billion urban icon, made a big splash with its grand opening last week.
The SkyPark atop the three tapering hotel towers admitted its first guests to
look down over the edge of the infinity pool 57 stories above Singapore to the
Singapore Flyer wheel and beyond.
"Jaw-droppingly tremendous," one usually buttoned-down analyst exclaimed.
Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, no fan of casinos or brevity, simply
Last Wednesday's grand opening at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) became a made-for-TV
junk sport tower climb. The event produced great panoramas of Singapore and
skirted any rules around the region against casino advertising. A gala dinner
Singapore's great and good highlighted the formal launch of this integrated
resort (IR). The developer, Las Vegas Sands Corporation, invited everyone who's
anyone in Singapore, Diana Ross entertained. It was an occasion for the
city-state to celebrate.
"Singapore has already won," independent gaming and leisure analyst Jonathan
Galaviz declared, and he'd get no argument from the hundreds attending the gala
opening or from the hundreds of thousands who have visited the two IRs so far.
MBS gives Singapore a new, instantly recognizable global landmark. More
practically, MBS provides Singapore with a convention center as large as any in
Asia and a resident production of Broadway's The Lion King, now opening
in March next year rather than this October as previously announced.
Resorts World Sentosa, Genting International's already opened US$4.7 billion
integrated resort, features Asia's largest Universal Studios - Singapore's long
sought world-class theme park - and will soon feature its own resident modern
circus production Voyage de la Vie, plus the world's biggest aquarium.
What's a Jimmy Choo?
Both IRs are also building museums. Aside from education and culture,
name-brand luxury abounds. Heard of Jimmy Choo but never seen one the company's
products? At either IR, have a gander at shoes and bags from S$238 (US$169) up,
way up. Choose star chefs from classic French to Austral-Japan fusion to good
old American steak, and Chinese, if you please, from several regions.
It's all aimed at bringing in overseas tourists, families and leisure crowds to
Resorts World Sentosa and business travelers to MBS, with hopes of raising
Singapore's visitor count from below 10 million in dismal 2009 to 17 million by
2015. When fully completed, the IRs will directly employ about 20,000, and
create countless further business opportunities.
The government guided what was built through a strict bidding process that
limited the casino floor area to 15,000 square meters (161,400 square feet).
Its S$100 charge for Singapore citizens and permanent residents to enter the
casino seems to have hit the right price spot to discourage, but not exclude,
locals from having a flutter. Booming tourist numbers have provided the
scoreboard to keep track of Singapore's IR win. Visitors are up 30% for May to
a record 946,000 arrivals (not counting land arrivals across the causeway from
Malaysia) according to figures released on Monday, the sixth consecutive
all-time arrivals record for a month.
No taxpayer dollars at work
"They got these companies to build it all without a cent of government
subsidy," said Dennis Foo, Singapore's leading nightclub impresario, chief
executive of the Saint James Power Station entertainment business, and a member
of the Singapore Tourism Council.That's different from other occasions when
Singapore has attempted to lure something new to town, from nanotechnology
research to the Crazy Horse topless cabaret.
Now that the IRs are up and running and far enough along that there's no
question about their completion, the nanny state has left the table with its
bankroll intact. Still at the table with their chips on the line are two
heavily indebted companies compliant with Singapore Inc to market their
prodigiously over-budget resorts. It's happened at no real risk to Singapore,
politically or economically. The proposal to allow casinos prompted the
biggest, most public political debate in Singapore's history. But everyone knew
what the outcome would be, and whatever their opinions, Singaporeans largely
fell into line behind the government's decision.
As large and obvious as the IRs are, they're still just a sideshow for
Singapore. They're located on the fringes of town, far from the heartland of
public housing estates and working-class wage earners. Except in the convention
and visitor sector, the IRs will remain on the fringe of Singapore's economy,
contributing marginally to gross domestic product (GDP). Thatís in contrast to
Macau, where casinos dwarf any other local sector and economically are the tail
that wags the dog.
Book of Lee
Still, not everyone believes that Singapore has won, or that the game is over.
Execution risk doesn't end with the completion of construction.
From the beginning, the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) argued
against the casinos. "I worry about getting in millionaires to drive up GDP,"
SDP secretary general Chee Soon Juan said. "We're attracting the hyper-rich.
Meanwhile, income disparity in Singapore continues to grow." Chee suggests an
alternative formula for economic success: "Work diligently and creatively to
produce goods and services that people want to buy."
That's sounds awfully Singaporean, a page from the book of founding father Lee
who sued Chee into bankruptcy. Chee scoffed at the notion that casinos mean the
end of the nanny state. "They know they cannot hold back activities people want
to engage in. They'll do anything to have the look and feel of a progressive
state. The one thing they won't allow is political freedom."
Economically, the IRs "are not a problem solver", Chee said. "The jobs are not
going to Singaporeans, but mainly to foreign workers." With no minimum wage in
Singapore, employers drive down pay to a level that Singaporeans won't accept
but Filipinos, Indonesians and mainland Chinese will.
"We have to stop outsourcing our hospitality industry to other countries'
labor," said Devin Kimble, managing director of Menu, which runs a chain of
restaurants, including microbrewery Brewerkz. "We have to add value and that
At both IRs, once you get beyond the hotel front desk and executive suites,
well-spoken English or any other Western language is a rarity. But it's not
just about language. It's about thinking creatively to find ways that will keep
customers coming back and telling their friends to visit Singapore.
On the macro side, the junk sport climb up the side of the MBS towers was
broadcast on a satellite station that isn't part of the TV system at MBS. But
the IR has several in-house channels - and surely LVS held the rights to the
event and paid for it to be broadcast. So, instead of a loop about gourmet
restaurants opening in the coming months or the baccarat tutorial, why not
broadcast the climb and the other grand opening event live on those channels
and continue showing them for weeks to give guests a sense that they're in the
middle of something historic?
Similarly, at Resorts World Sentosa, there are several notable artworks, from
neo-cubism by Romero Britto to blown glass by Dale Chihuly to a cast of perhaps
the best-known sculpture in the world, Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.
There is also a whole hotel built around the designs of Michael Graves,
featuring many of his prints and paintings. Type up a sheet of highlights to
guide guests through an art tour of the property, and you've added value to
money already spent.
At the micro level, it means someone who can bring two extra sachets of instant
coffee to my room on the first try and not finding a strange cigarette lighter
on my table after the room was made up. (At least it wasn't a condom.) Maybe a
maid found the lighter under the bed or desk and thought it was mine and
deserves credit for trying hard. But at S$359-S$489 (US$257-$350) a night at
MBS - and 17 million guests for Singapore - trying hard can't be good enough
"We shouldn't be the McDonald's of Asia, we should be the Ritz Carlton," Menu's
Kimble said of Singapore. It will take years to see in which direction the IRs
lead Singapore, and whether it's really a long-term win for the city-state and
Macau Business special correspondent and former broadcast news producer Muhammad
Cohen told Americaís story to the world as a US diplomat and is author
Hong Kong On Air,
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow
Muhammad Cohenís blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.