Thousands of gamblers filled the sprawling Marina Bay Sands casino here on a recent weeknight, placing bets on baccarat tables, roulette wheels and dice games under the glow of a seven-ton Swarovski crystal chandelier.
With its high-stakes tables, dozens of invitation-only VIP rooms and sleek design, the Marina Bay Sands is the go-to hotel for visiting celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. And it’s one of the reasons Singapore is poised to vault past Las Vegas next year to become the world’s No. 2 gambling destination, behind Macao in southern China.
Singapore, Sin City-State? It seems an unlikely moniker for this straight-laced society best known for banning chewing gum and caning scofflaws for infractions as minor as overstaying a travel visa.
For half a century, Singapore has cultivated a reputation as a business-friendly nanny state that overcame its tight confines and dearth of natural resources to become one of the quintessential Asian Tiger economies. The government saw regulating its citizens’ behavior and marginalizing critics as essential to its success.
But the fear of losing Asia’s battle for tourism — and the prospect of creating thousands of local jobs — spurred Singapore to reconsider. The island nation has seen rising regional competition for its pillar industries, such as high-tech manufacturing and financial services, and has felt a need to diversify its economy.
To that end, the nation’s 87-year-old founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, began championing the idea of casinos and an image makeover for uptight Singapore.
The city-state then lifted a decades-old ban on gambling and opened two sparkling new casinos last year — one operated by Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the other by Malaysian-owned Resorts World Sentosa — at a combined cost of more than $10 billion.
“The government is trying to make a virtue out of a vice,” said Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University. “They’re trying to say, ‘This is not the Singapore of old, it’s a happening place with a bit of raciness.’ ”
Still, stodgy Singapore isn’t willing to slap on the Mardi Gras beads just yet. Bent on reaping the economic benefits of gambling while minimizing such byproducts as addiction and crime, public officials are doing their best to make it tough on their own citizens to gamble.
Singaporeans and permanent residents must pay the equivalent of $80 for a one-day pass to enter one of the 24-hour casinos. Family members can blacklist relatives from playing if their loved ones show signs of problem gambling.
Casino operators are banned from promoting and advertising locally. Already, they have been ordered to take down websites naming winners of cars and cash and to halt free bus service from government-subsidized housing complexes.
“Most of my friends are like me. We don’t want to pay the levy,” said Jason Lee, a 39-year-old Singaporean who has yet to visit the casinos. “But I don’t think it’s going to do much to stop the hard-core gamblers. It’s really not that expensive to them.”
Regulators also have blocked highly profitable VIP junkets that allow third-party operators to bring in high-rollers from overseas. The practice, which is the backbone of Macao’s success, is commonly associated with organized crime.
To make gambling more palatable to its critics, Singapore adopted a euphemism for the casinos by calling them integrated resorts. The operators had to offer additional attractions and could not dedicate more than 5% of their total floor space to the casinos.
Resorts World Sentosa, for instance, opened a theme park with Universal Studios and built a cluster of high-end family hotels as part of the casino resort.
Marina Bay Sands targeted conventioneers — and transformed the city’s skyline — by constructing its hotel as three glass skyscrapers joined at the top by a sky park. The park, a stunning 57-story-high terrace, features an infinity pool the length of one-and-a-half football fields overlooking Singapore’s financial district.
A glass pavilion nestled in the man-made freshwater bay below will be the site of two nightclubs, one opened by Steve Adelman of Hollywood’s Avalon and the other by Michael Ault, a New York nightlife impresario.
Not everyone has been impressed. Before the resorts ever broke ground, the plan sparked a fierce debate in an autocratic country not known for political opposition.
Casino critics accused leaders of the People’s Action Party, which has been in power even before Singapore declared its sovereignty as a republic in 1965, of undermining family values.
Simmering anger over the issue was said to contribute to the party’s bruising performance in the May elections when it scored its smallest majority in five decades.
Other critics said the resorts underscored the government’s lack of vision — calling it a quick fix that does little to resolve the country’s economic challenges.
“They’ve run out of ideas,” said Tan Jee Say of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. “The casinos prey on human weakness to capture economic growth. Is this a long-term solution? I don’t think so.”
For now, at least, the strategy has given Singapore a boost. Last year, a record 11.6 million tourists visited the country, and the two casino resorts were estimated to have accounted for 1.7% of Singapore’s gross domestic product, the government said.
“Access to two large casinos in a prosperous city is a winning formula,” said Huei Suen Ng, an analyst for brokerage CLSA in Hong Kong.
Ng estimates that the casinos contribute 90% of the resorts’ total revenue. She said Singapore will likely match Las Vegas for gaming dollars this year at around $6.5 billion but then surge past it next year with estimated revenue of $8.1 billion.
Macao is still by far the biggest gambling site in the world, scoring $23.5 billion in gaming revenue last year.
The more Singapore’s casinos grow, the greater the potential social fallout. Despite the hefty entrance tax, locals are suspected of constituting a higher percentage of visitors than originally intended, though no numbers have been reported. One lawmaker proposed tripling the fee. Meanwhile, treatment for gambling addiction is reportedly on the rise.
Janice Lin, a 21-year-old college student and Singapore native, said she’s increasingly concerned about her parents, who park themselves in front of slot machines for hours at a time about five days a week.
“They’ll come home at 4 a.m. carrying a bag of a thousand $1 coins and explain it’s from the office, not the casino,” she said. “I’m really worried. I don’t have a say.”
Lin said her parents also indulge in casino cruises that take passengers to international waters, one of the few ways Singaporeans could gamble before the resorts opened.
Demand for gambling was bottled up in Singapore for years, said Desmond Lam, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Macau and author of “The World of Chinese Gambling.”
The urge to play is partly a reflection of the country’s majority ethnic Chinese population, which Lam said has a predilection for risk-taking.
“Chinese people are superstitious,” said Lam, who is a Chinese native of Singapore. “There’s a belief that they can harness their luck and take control of the gambling table.”