Singapore wins, for now

Muhammad Cohen
Asia Times Online

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 said, “Wow.”

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 for 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). That’s 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.

Onshore outsourcing

“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 costs money.”

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 anymore.

“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 its citizens.

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