Singapore's biggest gamble becomes a reality
Toh Han Shih in Singapore
Gambling used to rank with chewing gum as one of the great sins in strait-laced Singapore. Not any more.
Judging from the opening of the city state's first casino this month, Singaporeans are eager converts to blackjack and roulette despite long being warned about their evils.
The casino, part of the 'integrated' Resorts World Sentosa, proved a big draw card with locals despite the fact they have to pay a special entry fee and were warned by Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew that they would 'surely lose'.
With a Lamborghini sports car on display as a slot machine prize and scantily-clad showgirls, the casino represents a break from the past for Singapore, where the world-famous zoo used to be its most exciting tourist attraction.
During the first week of operations from February 14, Resorts World Casino received more than 149,000 visitors, said Lim Soon Hua, assistant director of communications for Resorts World Sentosa. Many were Singaporeans or citizens of neighbouring Malaysia.
Deep queues of people waited their turn to gamble on the slot machines and gaming tables while a long line of people stood to apply for a S$2,000 (HK$11,000) annual casino membership.
Despite the eagerness to get to the gaming tables, the lifting of the country's strict ban on gambling does come with some caveats. The S$6.6 billion Resorts World is called 'an integrated resort', because the government did not want to play up the gambling aspect and wanted to project a wholesome family image in keeping with the nation's squeaky clean reputation.
Resorts World Sentosa and Singapore's other casino, Marina Bay Sands, which is expected to open later this year, are also restricted to having only a minority of their floor space for gaming.
Singapore's twin casinos are not expected to rival Macau, the world's largest gaming market, which has 33 casinos that pulled in a combined US$14.36 billion in revenue last year. However, despite having the world's most stringent gaming regulations, the Lion City's effective tax rate of 12 per cent on VIP casino winnings should help it compete for business from high rollers against Macau, which taxes gaming revenues at an effective 38-39 per cent rate.
Four of Resorts World's six hotels - the Hard Rock, Festive, Hotel Michael and Crockford, which feature 1,800 rooms - have been in business since January 20. During the Lunar New Year holiday, all four hotels were fully booked, with an occupancy rate of roughly 80 per cent during other periods, said Resorts World's Lim. The resort's remaining two hotels, Equarius and Spa Villas, will open by early next year, he added.
Families appeared prevalent visitors during opening week at the 49-hectare resort, despite the fact that its Universal Studios theme park and Marine Life Park oceanarium were not open. The theme park will open later in the first quarter, while the oceanarium will open after this year, said a Resorts World Sentosa spokeswoman. Marine Life Park will be the world's largest oceanarium, with 90 million litres of water and 700,000 aquatic creatures in an eight-hectare facility.
But high rollers appeared a bit thin on the ground. The luxury shops were mostly empty and the majority of visitors appeared to be average wage earners from either Singapore or Malaysia. There were a few luxury sports cars in car park but nothing comparable to what you would find in places like Monaco or even Macau.
Despite the humble appearance of most of the locals, they did not appear to be deterred by the S$100 entry fee that Singaporeans and Singapore permanent residents were required to pay to enter the casino.
Up in the VIP rooms, the clientele were better dressed than the masses downstairs, with women sporting luxury brand handbags, and some gamers appearing to be mainland Chinese. Each VIP player is required to deposit at least S$100,000 before playing.
But like casinos around the world, most people appeared glum. Most of the unsmiling faces milling around the tables exuded a grim obsession with winning money.
So far, at least eight visitors to the casino have fallen afoul of the city state's no-nonsense law enforcement authorities, according to Singaporean press reports. This includes two Mongolians who were arrested on February 15 for attempting to sneak into the casino. Five Singaporeans and permanent residents were also caught trying to sneak into the casino without paying the S$100 entrance fee. And an Indonesian gambler who said he lost money at the casino was jailed in Singapore for four weeks, after pleading guilty to stealing a mobile phone.
Although the Macanese are blas? about the gambling and prostitution that have been a widespread feature of their city's casinos for many years, the slightest hint of vice stirs up excitement in repressed Singapore. The Lion City's media has had breathless reports of prostitutes stalking male customers and men ogling the showgirls.
Resorts World Sentosa expects 13 million visitors in the first year of full operations after the Universal Studios theme park opens later in the first quarter, said Krist Boo, a spokeswoman for Genting International, the Singapore-listed developer of Resorts World Sentosa.
Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted in the Singaporean media as saying that the casino had winnings of S$3.5 million on its first day and S$3.7 million the second day.
Although Singapore's founding father was a prime mover in lifting his strictly-governed country's ban on casinos, Lee told local media: 'They want to gamble. I don't understand why they want to lose. You surely will not win.'
It is perhaps not surprising that the resort would be crowded on the opening day. Singaporeans were naturally attracted by the novelty of their first casino in living memory.
However, the fact that the casino continued to pack in hordes of eager gamblers several days later is a harbinger that casinos are likely to be a long-term draw for Singaporeans.
When the casino offers longer gaming hours from March onwards, and after the Universal Studios theme park and oceanarium open, it appears likely that Resorts World Sentosa will suck in many Singaporeans for a long time to come.
Resorts World charges locals a S$100 fee to gain entry to the casino
On its opening day, the casino had winnings of, in S$: $3.5m