“We are all, in one way or another, gamblers…”

Review of Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity by Lee Kah-Wee (Singapore: NUS Press, 2019)
by Joanne Leow

Lee Kah-Wee’s Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity begins by juxtaposing key visuals that demonstrate the complex, transnational critique that the book seeks to make about the entanglement of politics, law, gambling, urban planning, and architecture in Singapore. In its first few pages we are given an illustration of an interior of an early gambling den in Macau, an American advertisement for a gambling technology company in the late twentieth century, a Singapore Toto booth (for lottery and sweepstakes tickets) in 1985, and an interior view of the Integrated Resort Marina Bay Sands. Each carefully chosen image may seem oddly disparate when first seen together, yet the book ultimately makes a case for the intimate if unlikely connections between the histories of gambling in Singapore and Las Vegas. Las Vegas in Singapore draws on the disciplines of history, casino design and architecture, anthropology, law, and sociology to tell a complex story about the precedents and rationales for Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands—the nation-state’s controversial architectural symbol most recently seen as a spectacular setting in the novel and film versions of Crazy Rich Asians.

In its most successful moments, Lee’s elegantly written book elucidates the colonial and postcolonial attempts in Singapore to first criminalize, then regulate, and ultimately profit from gambling as an enterprise. He draws on a fascinating and little-known history of gambling in Singapore from the colonial period to contemporary times. Lee uses spatial, architectural, and social aspects of this history as a critical framework. This methodology allows him to critique the turn from colonial regulation of urban spaces to the postcolonial efforts to simultaneously criminalize gambling and render it part of nation-building efforts. In particular, the book offers a counter-history of what Lee calls “moral laundering,” explicating the implications of the use of money from a national lottery system to build such vital structures as the National Stadium. Lee then translates this process to architectural and material effects, discussing how and why the presence of the casino in Marina Bay Sands has been effaced in order to maintain what he sees as Singapore’s core myth: an “ultra-pastoral rendition of modernity” that represents “progress without crisis” (4). This myth is singular for its ability to co-opt and enfold any possible dissent or crisis into a continuous moral order—for instance, coding the transition to independence as a simple and peaceful transfer of power from a colonial authority to an Anglophone elite. In his focus on the contradictions of nation building in its governmental, legal, and spatial aspects, Lee’s work draws from and supplements other recent studies like Jothie Rajah’s Authoritarian Rule of Law (Cambridge UP, 2012) and Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2017). Like these two works, Lee’s book highlights the strong continuities between the colonial and postcolonial biopolitical regimes in Singapore with regards to their intent to regulate and discipline their subjects.

The methodically researched book is divided into two parts: an account of key moments in the policies regarding gambling in Singapore entitled “City of Violence” and a brief history and principles of casino design as developed in Las Vegas and its implications for Singapore. This second section is entitled “City of Progress” and incorporates archival work that Lee did in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas at the Center for Gaming Research Special Collections. Lee explains that these two sections are to be seen as “two interconnected but distinct genealogies” (6) which draw sharp contrasts between the often unjust and over-zealous criminalization of gambling in Singapore with the Las Vegas model of casino gaming as “a profitable business seeking new markets and a respectable veneer” (6). In a final chapter, “Las Vegas in Singapore: Nationalist Modernity and the Aesthetics of Effacement,” Lee brings these two threads together as he considers the confluence of these two impulses.

The book’s structure seeks to undermine fixed ideas of morality and legality and brings to the fore the ambiguities inherent in the Singapore state’s treatment of gambling both as a vice and as a tool of nation building. The first half, “City of Violence,” is arguably the most interesting and cohesive section of the text. Its first chapter traces the ways in which the colonial powers attempted to tackle gambling in Singapore through the various avenues of legislation, racialized policing, ethnography, and forensic technologies like fingerprinting. In a precursor to Singapore’s postcolonial regime’s use of surveillance and discipline, Lee argues that the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance “attempted to make the city legible in a certain way to the colonial administrators” (45) and to potentially render the entire city as “an undifferentiated terrain of criminality” (45). Lee continues to trace a through line of this exercise of power in his second chapter when he points out that “under the project of nation-building, the state turned against its own recalcitrant citizens with renewed vigour” (64). This meant that spaces like the provision shop, schools, mobile carts, coffee shops, and other ordinary zones became places of suspicion. Chapter 3 retains this spatial focus as Lee discusses the significance of street gambling as “a way of life and a form of social organization” (115) making its criminalization a way for the government to contain and order its population and its living spaces.

This exposition sets up Lee’s fourth and arguably most convincing chapter, “From Lottery to Stadium” where he theorizes the “moral laundering” of lottery money by its transformation to nationalist architecture. Lee’s detailed history of the the Singapore Pools as an organization to fund the construction of the National Stadium and other sports facilities through lottery funds shows how state-sponsored gambling became ubiquitous and unremarkable in the late 1960s and 70s in Singapore. By 2011, Lee notes that there were 300 legalized gambling outlets throughout the island. The massive success of this endeavor meant that the money in question was symbolically transformed into a positive, material presence. Indeed, state-sponsored gambling had the ability to rally the populace and further literally concretize the “optimistic internationalism” (136) of the young nation through architectural spectacle.

            The second section of Las Vegas in Singapore suffers from a slightly disjointed focus. While it seems necessary to include a brief history of casino gambling in Las Vegas and its implications for Singapore’s casinos, the two chapters on American casino design and architecture with their highly technical language oftentimes felt quite removed from the earlier section of the book. One wonders if they might have been differently incorporated in the text or whether the explication of the “Las Vegas model” of casino construction needed quite so much detail. This is a small complaint, however, since Lee’s seventh and final chapter, and his conclusion make admirable work of dissecting Singapore’s integrated resort’s place and effacement in a colonial, transnational, and nationalist history of the Singapore state. By examining the process by which the design for the Marina Bay Sands was decided on, Lee demonstrates how “an unknown and potentially disruptive object was slowly tamed and re-represented within the script of Marina Bay” (216). His analysis of key moments in the genesis and planning for the integrated resort is also crucial for its reflections on the vagaries of Singapore’s supposedly “rigid and linear planning process” (216). Lee concludes that Moshe Safdie was “the perfect architect” (236) for the project since he understood that the final building had to be an “exemplar of the aesthetics of effacement” (236) in order to ensure the continuity of Singapore’s essential image of ultra-pastoral modernity. Thus, the most visible and spectacular parts of the structure were eventually the sky-park, the water pavilions, the museum and hotel—structures that coincided with the vision of Singapore’s urban planners for public life and iconic architecture. Unlike in a typical Las Vegas casino, the gaming area itself was hidden away behind these visually stunning structures.

            Lee’s study makes many bold and interesting claims about the Singapore state’s regulation and manipulation of space both socially and materially. His work will be of interest to scholars of Singapore studies, colonial and postcolonial histories, gambling, and nationalist architectures. Through its focus on the under-studied histories of games of chance in the colonial and postcolonial periods, Las Vegas in Singapore is able to reveal the overarching aesthetics and contradictions that arise when a state attempts to control and discipline a population and its global image. Lee is also cognizant of the sinister “assimilation of illiberal laws into the deep tissue of society” (245) that makes these forms of control possible. Laws that arose in the colonial era in Singapore and are only strengthened in the contemporary period. His book ends with an image of women seated around a mahjong table in 1980 at Johore Road in Singapore. They are nonchalantly gambling in a public space, amidst and in spite of the debris and rubble of urban renewal that is all around them. Like with the opening images of the book, Lee points out the complexity of the photograph and the impossibility of imposing a simplistic moral judgment on these women. He asks us to recognize ourselves in them, since, his detailed social history has shown us that, “we are all, in one way or another, gamblers” (246).

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Joanne Leow (Ph.D, University of Toronto) is Assistant Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Her recent work is published or forthcoming in University of Toronto Quarterly, Verge, positions, and Journal of Asian American Studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript on authoritarianism, space, and contemporary Singapore cultural production.