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Singapore lightens up for tourists

By Wayne Arnold The New York Times

TUESDAY, MAY 23, 2006

SINGAPORE When Lee Chin Koon was a member in the 1930s, the Chinese Swimming Club here offered more than just laps in the pool. There was mah- jongg and blackjack, too.
"We Chinese are gamblers," he told club historians before his death in 1997. "If two lizards scale up a wall, someone would bet on them."
But what Lee's son, Lee Kuan Yew, remembered was how, after a losing night, his father would come home in a violent rage demanding his wife give him jewelry to pawn. When Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of independent Singapore in 1965, he set about transforming this once-squalid seaport into a tidy industrial park by targeting vice. Cigarettes and alcohol were heavily taxed. Drugs traffickers were told they would be hanged. Casinos, naturally, were banned.
Times are changing once again. Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now prime minister, and he is striving to shake Singapore's reputation as Asia's nanny state.
With the country's basic manufacturing jobs shifting to China, Lee wants to stimulate tourism and other service industries by molding a more tolerant, fun-loving Singapore. And one of his signature projects - the world's most expensive casino complex - harks back more to his grandfather's Chinese Swimming Club than to his father's profit-perfect industrial landscape.
Last year, the government lifted its ban on casinos. Next month it is due to choose who will build the first of two planned resorts, a $3 billion extravaganza that will include a casino, an entertainment complex, a convention center and hotels. The list of bidders includes some of the biggest names in Las Vegas - Harrah's Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Mirage.
Strait-laced Singapore and freewheeling Vegas make strange partners. But Singapore is betting that, in return for letting casino operators tap the Chinese penchant for gambling, it can create a world-class tourist attraction without sacrificing the low crime rate and clean image that make it so popular with multinational corporations.
A question among many casino operators is whether Singapore's vision of a sanitized casino culture risks bleaching out the components that attract gamblers and drive profitability. But four of the biggest casino companies are betting that it won't. Las Vegas Sands is pitching a $3.6 billion project that would include a partnership with the Guggenheim Foundation. The Malaysian company Genting has promised an association with Universal Studios.
Harrah's, which has teamed up with a government-owned company, has enlisted James Cameron, director of the movie "Titanic," to design an indoor theme park. And MGM Mirage, which has also teamed up with a state-owned company, is including Cirque du Soleil as part of its bid.
"It's more money than we have ever proposed for any other hotel-casino integrated resort," said J. Terrence Lanni, chief executive of MGM Mirage.
If Singapore is trying to loosen up, the casino industry is seeking to shed its somewhat unsavory reputation and win acceptance as mainstream entertainment. And after a series of industry mergers - Harrah's with Caesar's, MGM with Mandalay - the casino giants see Asia, with its turbocharged economic growth and fervor for gambling, as the next great frontier.
Analysts estimate that casino revenue in the region will grow 20 percent this year to $13 billion. And that does not include the estimated $4 billion or more that Asians spend each year on illegal gambling or cruise-ship casinos.
Perhaps no one takes gambling more seriously than the Chinese. In China, casinos are illegal, so package vacations often include a visit to gambling centers like Macao, the former Portuguese enclave near Hong Kong. Since ending a monopoly on gambling two years ago, the once-seedy Macao has attracted billions of dollars in investments. MGM is spending more than $1 billion to build a casino there. Sands is building its second casino after its first pulled in more than $900 million within three months of opening.
Other Asian governments are taking notice. "The success that Macao has seen is putting pressure on other Asian economies to look at gaming as a source of income," said Joseph Greff, a gambling industry analyst at Bear Stearns in New York. South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam are expanding their casinos, and Japan, Taiwan and Thailand are considering legalizing them.
Singapore does not want to lose out. Tourism accounts for just 5 percent of Singapore's economy, and the authorities, despite a lack of natural tourist attractions here, hope to double annual arrivals to 17 million and triple the amount tourists spend to 30 billion Singapore dollars, or $19 billion, by 2015.
Officials here have rejected several casino proposals, most recently in 2002, when a committee assembled by Lee Hsien Loong, then finance minister, included a plan for one in an overall strategy aimed at helping Singapore improve its competitiveness at a time the global economy was still sluggish.
But signs have been mounting that Singapore is loosening up. In 2003, it lifted a ban on bar-top dancing and signaled an end to a crackdown on gay bars. The next year, it lifted a 20-year ban on Cosmopolitan magazine. Last year, a government minister presided at the opening of a Singapore branch of the Parisian topless revue Crazy Horse.
In March 2004, a government minister told Parliament the government was considering a casino on a small island theme park just off the main island of Singapore. The government then announced plans to place a second entertainment complex, designed as a showcase, directly across the harbor from the city center on land that city planners have designated for Singapore's new business district.
"This is the face of Singapore," said Cheng Hsing Yao, head of planning for the area at the Urban Redevelopment Authority. "We don't want kitsch."
To ensure that gambling does not dominate the scene, the casino will be allowed to occupy no more than 5.5 percent of the resort's area. The operator must build an equally large attraction of a different type - a museum, gallery or theater - as well.
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