Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's what's on the inside that counts: a review of Singapore's casinos

Having closely followed the build-up to the launch of Singapore's casinos, it was good to finally check them out last week.

The scale of both casino resorts - Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands - was impressive, with the triple-towered MBS dominating the skyline of downtown Singapore.

The interior of both casinos was rather less impressive, with construction work still ongoing at MBS and teething problems at both venues.

With both projects running behind behind schedule, it seems as if the casino operators (American gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia's Genting) were desperate to throw open the doors and start raking in the cash as soon as possible.

I think some of the staff could have done with a bit more practice before being unleashed on the public.

At a number of different blackjack tables in both casinos, young Singaporean dealers regularly fluffed the deal and screwed up the pay-out - major casino faux pas. When ordinary people are losing hundreds of dollars in a matter of minutes, they expect good service.

Although indoor smoking is banned in public places in Singapore, both casinos were given exceptions by the Singapore government after concerted lobbying - the casino operators feared that if people had to go outside into the real world for a smoke they might think twice about coming back and losing more money.

The smoking area in Resorts World was a real den of iniquity, packed with chain-smoking Chinese gamblers pumping the slot machines and electronic roulette consoles with reckless abandon. Although the stench of smoke made the air almost unbreathable, some hardy and presumably not very well-off gamblers were sleeping in the room, ensuring that they didn't waste their hard-earned cash on such unnecessary frills as hotel rooms. An armed security officer stood guard just outside the smoking room, keeping the tobacco-addicted riff raff in check.

Like any casino, it all felt a bit seedy. But, once all the other facilities at both venues are fully open, perhaps they will feel more like "integrated resorts", as the government likes to call them.

If Singapore can pull off this grand experiment, boosting the coffers by legalising casino gambling without stirring up major social problems, other Asian governments are likely to sit up and take notice.

Vietnam is already building its first mega-casino at the Ho Tram strip, Taiwan has been debating legalising casinos and pressure is also growing in Japan for a similar move.

Just imagine how much money a casino in Jakarta could make.

For more on the casino issue, check out my latest story for Monocle.

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