The arrival of Las Vegas gambling in squeaky-clean Singapore is causing consternation among its conservative citizens…
Nice and quiet is exactly how Singaporean Emmanuel Robin Tan likes his city. So the 28-year old has not got a good word to say about the coming construction of Singapore's first casino in downtown Marina Bay.
"It will turn Singapore into a gambling den. There will be more crime, and more people in debt and borrowing from loan sharks," the sports instructor said on Friday night, standing a block away from the S$1.2billion (£4n) waterfront site where the world's most expensive "integrated resort" will be built.
Las Vegas Sands, the world's largest casino firm by market value, is now finalising the design of its US$3.6billion (£1.9bn) Marina Bay Sands resort-casino.
Beating out three rivals to win the deal two months ago, Sands will start building the development's three hotel towers, 300-plus meeting rooms and retail arcades later this year, to meet a 2009 deadline.
The ambitious project is a direct reversal of the smallest country in Southeast Asia's decades-old ban on casinos. But without such changes, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last April, it risks becoming a "backwater" .
"We want Singapore to have the x-factor – that buzz that you get in London, Paris or New York," he said, mapping out how the Marina Bay casino, and another planned for the resort island of Sentosa, will boost the region's fourth-largest economy through tourism.
Talk of the casino employing 10,000 people and creating 20,000 jobs in other industries has not won over critics though. Almost 30,000 Singaporeans signed an anti-casino petition last year; worried about the social problems it could create.
Christian and Muslim groups voiced concerns, but Tan, a Christian, says the outcry "is not about religion".
"The casino may benefit the government, but it's unhealthy for society. The rich will get richer and the poor, poorer".
The government is already moving to counter such criticism. In August 2005, five months after Lee green-lighted bids, a National Council on Problem Gambling was set up. It has already run a TV show on gambling's risks – Bet Your Life – and a World Cup-inspired forum on excessive football betting.
The steep S$100 (£35) one-off, or S$2,000 (£685) annual, entry fee that will greet Singaporeans at the door of their new casino is another disincentive.
Such steps might anger communities unused to sweeping, Singapore-style social prescriptions. But locals already living with laws against jaywalking and chewing gum seem unperturbed.
Mohammed Malik, 36, bartender at the Superbowl Golf and Country Club by Marina Bay park, approves of the levy: "If it was free, people would go a lot. If they really want to play at the casino, they can pay and go once".
A handful of heartlanders – the collective name Singaporeans use about themselves – making one-off visits is not Las Vegas Sands' end-goal, of course. The Singapore casino should break even by 2017, Chief Operating Officer William Weidner said in May.
Rising numbers of gamblers should also help the Singapore Tourist Board meet its goal of doubling annual visitors to 17 million, and tripling their spending to S$30bn (£10.2bn) by 2015.
Asia's legal gambling industry is already valued at about US$14bn (£7.7bn) a year. Tourists from China, where gambling is illegal, are largely driving the boom. South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam plan to expand their casinos, and Japan, Taiwan and Thailand are debating legalisation.
Swedish tourist Tomas Gustafsson, 35, says a casino would "fit in well" in Singapore.
"There seem to be quite a few wealthy people around," the first-time visitor said, sitting eating satay skewers with a friend on Boon Tat Street, across from where Marina Bay Sands will stand.
Would he go? "No. Casinos are not my thing".
Straight-laced Singaporeans may also seem unlikely to succumb to the risky temptations of roulette. But stories about heartlanders displaying the kind of superstitious logic that keeps casino wheels spinning circulate locally.
Many reportedly chase down the license-plate numbers of cars that have been in accidents to use them in gambling, as the numbers have supposedly lost their bad luck. Others hunt around cemeteries for lucky numbers. Casinos could even slot into the competitive culture's kiasu – ‘fear of losing’ – mindset.
Taxi-driver Andre Wong, 45, says Singaporeans gamble enough already. He plays the state-run Singapore Pools, set up in 1968 to curb illegal gambling. And his friends bet on horses at the racetrack. But he will try the casino.
"The S$100 is just extra income for the government," Wong says. "But I'll go and take a look. If I like it maybe I'll go again".
Sports instructor Tan remains unconvinced. "Theme parks would be better. Out of every ten people who go into the casinos, nine will lose their money. Why don't they build a Disneyland instead?"
But, he concludes, a few casinos are unlikely to radically change the squeaky-clean city-state:
"In Las Vegas they have strip shows and stuff. Singapore won't have that. Singapore will never be the new Las Vegas".