Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity

Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity

This post is based on the author’s recent book published with NUS press.

Marina Bay Sands (MBS), one of Singapore’s two Integrated Resorts (read: casino), is probably the most recognisable building in and outside of Singapore today. During an open-house session I attended in 2017, a spokesperson of the company boasted that “anyone who ‘googled’ Singapore 10 years ago might see images of the Merlion or Changi Airport. Today, they will most likely see MBS.” MBS might be a globally consumed image, but most will fail to recognise how strange this building is – the invisibility of the casino space within the complex, a public pedestrian bridge flying through the six-star hotel lobby, and the fact that the building is named “Marina Bay Sands”, not “Sands Marina Bay” as typical for all of Las Vegas Sands’ other properties around the world. Utterly mundane as an index of globalisation, the significance of the strangeness of this building will only come to the surface by delving deeply into the historical trajectories that collide at this site – on one hand, the experience with nationalism that imbued Singaporean politics with such a moralistic aversion toward casino gambling, and on the other, the corporatisation of the casino industry that began in Las Vegas and how it produced a global development model that could be replicated anywhere. It is this recognition that changed my project from one about globalisation to one about a “history of the present”.

A history of the present is a form of critical historiography—or a genealogy—formulated by French philosopher Michel Foucault to problematise the present, not by seeking solace or origins in the past, but by returning to moments of crisis where what is taken for granted today becomes neither self-evident nor familiar. As such, I begin with a critical reading of MBS in its urban context and show how it was carefully curated to erase all ideological contradictions. How to hide something “polluted” at a location that is symbolically central to the national and global imagination of Singapore? The urban ensemble materialises and performs a historical consciousness that is smooth and linear, as if the nation is this fully-formed subject of history that marched from Third World to First World upon independence. By transforming the casino into an Integrated Resort and camouflaging it at such a prominent location, the nation can claim to have a kind of moral essence that remains untainted throughout its short history. I call this fiction “progress without crisis”.

I begin to dig into the past to understand why society produces and continues to believe in this fiction, and how certain techniques of control I identified at MBS today have been formulated in different historical contexts to perpetuate it. As a scholar of the built environment, it is the second limb of this question that primarily guides the investigation – the specific techniques developed over time to tame something that threatens the self-representation of the nation as morally coherent. It is the laws colonial administrators created to control the Chinese secret societies in the name of public order, the calculus casino managers invented to link data to gambling psychology within the legal confines of the Las Vegas casino, and the rituals of the public lottery draw choreographed to defuse gamblers’ passion in Singapore’s national lottery. Gambling becomes a lens through which we learn about what society hides from itself – not in the form of some grand philosophical or sociological theory, but in these concrete techniques that are still very much with us today, albeit increasingly invisible and ubiquitous.

The diagnosis of the present guides my shovel and organises the substantive historical work into two interconnected but distinct genealogies, each forming one part of this book. In the first part, “City of Violence”, I analyse how the intensified criminalisation of vice from late colonial to post-independence Singapore shaped the urban landscape and everyday lives of Singaporeans. The analysis underscores the criminalising zeal of nation-building which turned inwards to discipline its own citizens for infringements that were often magnified under the puritanical watch of the state. In the second part, “City of Progress”, I analyse how the Las Vegas model of casino gambling became dominant in the US, paying attention to the emergence of the casino designer who claims to be able to, in the words of a prominent member of this sub-profession, create “architectural reasons to gamble”. In this account, gambling was not understood as vice or crime, but a profitable business seeking new markets and a respectable veneer. In the final chapter, I return to the present and show how these historical trajectories collided at Marina Bay and how the crisis of representation was resolved, at least for the time being.

An example of a technique of control analysed in the book is the Common Gaming House Ordinance, a law designed to criminalise gambling. I return to a moment of crisis in the 1880s, when the colonial government tried to arrest the problem of gambling after a public inquiry revealed the extent of corruption and collusion between the Chinese secret societies and all strata of the colonial police force. By examining legal documents and cases, I reveal the central question law faced in trying to attack a popular illegality – how to criminalise an activity that is practiced by all members of society (especially the natives) without producing an excess of crime? While the explicit target were the secret societies, such a law could potentially criminalise the swathe of ordinary citizens who engaged in petty gambling on an everyday basis. In the analysis, I show how law tried to surmount this problem by framing the crime of gambling in spatial and architectural terms, such that gambling became criminal only if it happened in certain spaces. The divisions of legality were thus drawn spatially through ambiguous notions of public and private. Such ambiguities were strategic, as they allowed law to exercise interpretative discretion to deal with the full range of possible conditions wherein gambling crossed a moral and legal threshold.

From there, I was able to follow the trails of this law in two ways – synchronically to understand how police work had to be reformed to translate the law into action and diachronically to understand how this law, when brought forward to post-independence Singapore, intersected with nationalist ideology and projects. For the former, I show how the introduction of Sinology and finger-printing into the civil service helped to finesse the shapeless fury of law into something much more precise. As a form of “forensic legibility”, these practices gave the colonial administration the ability to target specific individuals and produce a cartography of criminality that complemented the strategic ambiguity of law.  For the latter, I show how the moralistic fervour of nation-building transformed the central question inherited from the colonial era: it became “how to criminalize harder and more, and yet integrate everyone into the imagined community”. Yet, court cases suggest that the intensified criminalisation of vice produced unanticipated consequences where the zeal of nation-building threatened to trip over itself. I end with an analysis of the creation of the national lottery which the state justified by arguing that, while it still did not condone gambling, the revenue could be used to support nation-building projects, such as the construction of the National Stadium. Arguably, some aspects of this process of “moral laundering” – where “bad money” transforms into “good money” – are still in operation today.

With the benefit of the book behind me, I often ask myself how such a historical endeavour opens up different ways of thinking about and questioning the present. I argue in the conclusion that these episodes entreat us to come to terms with the shaky foundations of some of our moral convictions. And more importantly, how these convictions, far from transcendental, are place-specific in the sense that some activities can be criminalised in one location, but tolerated and even celebrated in others. Every society has found a way to suspend its internal contradictions through such strategies of segregation, containment and representation. I also ponder on some of the techniques of control covered in detail in the chapters and ask if there is some broad pattern connecting them across very different historical contexts: finger-printing in colonial Singapore and player tracking in Las Vegas casinos start to speak to each other, coalescing to become the prehistory of Iphones, Facebook and Instagram. Without drawing too dour a picture, the history of the control of gambling does provide a perspective into the present that is kaleidoscopic, contradictory and humbling. I end the book with a photograph of a group of ladies playing mah-jong in the midst of the rubble of urban renewal precisely to capture this perspective.

Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity was published by NUS Press in 2019.

Kah-Wee Lee is an Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of the Master of Urban Planning Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is an interdisciplinary scholar working across architectural history, urban studies and critical theory.

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