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East Meets West: Singapore Lightens Up.

General awareness of Singapore may be limited to illegal gum chewing, caning penalties for littering or graffiti, and certain death for drug trafficking. But after more than 40 years since its independence, Singapore is loosening its collar on one blacklisted activity - gambling.

Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to stimulate a miniscule tourism industry by promoting a more easy-going Singapore. His trump card: the world’s most expensive casino complex.

In 2004, the Singapore government was considering a casino on a small island theme park off the coast. It then announced plans to place a second entertainment complex opposite the harbor from downtown and it’s full steam ahead as long as there are more cultural attractions like museums, galleries, hotels and theatres to offset an imposing gambling presence.

Singapore’s casino ban was lifted last year and the government is now shopping for who will build the $3 billion wonderland across two resorts. Harrah’s Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Mirage are all in the running for the contract rights, and the bragging rights of successfully bringing high-style and free-spirited tourism to the rigidity of Singapore. Las Vegas Sands, for example, is pitching a project that would include a partnership with the Guggenheim. Harrah’s, on the other hand, has enlisted Hollywood director James Cameron design an indoor theme park. And MGM Mirage is including Cirque du Soleil to entice buyers.

"It’s more money than we have ever proposed for any other hotel-casino integrated resort," said MGM chief executive J. Terrence Lanni to the New York Times.

In a climate of seismic industry mergers — Harrah’s with Caesars, MGM with Mandalay — the casino giants see Asia, with its booming economies and rich gambling traditions, as the next great frontier.

Even though public opinion about the complex is mixed, the average Singaporean is all for a bit of gambling, spending roughly $940 a year, compared with $320 for the average American. So even if it’s a longer flight, it might pay to give The East a run for its money when Singapore takes center stage in 2010.
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