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Singapore's Modern Revolution

Sol LeWitt’s 1999 Wall Drawing #917, Arcs and Circles, in a lobby area at the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Photo: Morgan & Owen

In places like the Centrepoint Mall, the Far East Plaza, the Paragon, the Ion Orchard, the Orchard Point, the Far East Shopping Centre, the Orchard Emerald, the Orchard Towers, the Shaw House, or the Tanglin Mall, dense thickets of clothes and handbags and electronics and foodstuffs lure and assault the senses. Seeking shelter from the strike-you-dead heat of one summer afternoon, I hopped in a taxi to the Ion Orchard and passed the sandcastle spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the way. I briefly considered stopping to visit but then remembered where I was and pressed on to the pagan temple of Prada instead.

It is doubtless this kind of philistinism that the government hoped to offset when it inaugurated a Renaissance City initiative a decade ago aimed at recasting Singapore as a global creative capital. Since then the fine, jewel-box Asian Civilisations Museum was opened in a colonial-era riverfront structure; the small Peranakan Museum, devoted to the fusion cultures of Singapore, was installed in a disused middle school; and Kwok Kian Chow, the former head of the Singapore Art Museum, was appointed to oversee the creation of a new National Art Gallery, which will open in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings in roughly two years. The country recently hosted two well-received Singapore Biennales, created a duty-free and tax-free depot as a haven for international art collectors, and announced plans to launch Art Stage Singapore, hosting more than 80 international galleries, in the country’s bid to make Singapore a necessary whistle-stop on the global art-fair gravy train. Tellingly, perhaps, Art Stage Singapore will be held at the Marina Bay Sands resort, as impressive a monument to both tourism and expedient politics as you are ever likely to find.

It was also within the past decade that the government seemed to take a close look at the growing wealth of the mainland Chinese and deduce that banking alone might not suffice to ensure the island’s fiscal future. With typically Singaporean pragmatism, the country’s leaders reversed a long-term puritanical opposition to gaming and decided to turn the country into Vegas-sur-Mer. Never mind that the real Las Vegas was sliding toward oblivion, with unemployment at all-time highs and gambling revenue in the hole. The competitor that Singapore focused on was not situated in the Nevada desert but on a geographical flyspeck facing the South China Sea. Last year alone the gaming revenue from Macao’s 33 casinos outpaced those in Las Vegas, said David G. Schwartz, the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

And it was likely the lure of all that mainland Chinese gambling money that prompted the government to shift its stance and welcome the importation of hundreds of gaming tables and thousands of slot machines, most of them located either at a brand-new “integrated resort” on Sentosa Island or at the glamorous Marina Bay Sands.

Only a week before my arrival, Diana Ross inaugurated the place, crooning “I’m Coming Out” at a party for 2,500 invited guests of the $5.5 billion resort. Unusually for Singapore, the casino opened behind schedule. All the same, its construction was a feat of some sort because, even in boom times, few countries—let alone one as small as Singapore—could allocate acres of space for the creation of an instant landmark or find the funds to erect on it a trio of 55-story towers topped with an aerial park that resembles an immense vessel stranded by the retreat of an ancient sea.

From the so-called SkyPark atop Marina Bay Sands, designed by the Israeli American Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, you can take in the harbor and the colonial quarter and the city center and the East Coast Park and, on a clear day, the Indonesian island Batam and Malaysia’s Johor state. Of course, most visitors to Marina Bay Sands are destined to spend their time gazing instead at the hypnotic glow of cherries or lemons cascading down the screens of one-armed bandits, but that’s beside the point.

At the Marina Bay Sands everything has been supersized, from the number of guest rooms (2,561) and the square footage of the adjacent convention center (1.3 million) to a quantity of retail space exceeding even that of Changi Airport. By the time of my visit, the resort was already logging 25,000 visitors a day, many presumably headed for the tables. What makes that statistic particularly impressive is the knowledge that the government imposes a 100 Singaporean dollar tariff on locals to deter them from blowing the rent on sic-bo or blackjack. And yet, as a Singaporean Chinese friend explained on my visit, “If you think another $100 is going to keep a Chinese person from gambling, you’re nuts.’’

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