When one talks of Israeli connections in Singapore, the first thing that likely comes to mind is arms agreements. Even before entering into diplomatic relations with Israel in May 1969, Singapore made extensive purchases of military equipment from the Jewish state, and continues to do so, along with cooperating on security matters.
But Israel is also indirectly involved in Singapore’s tourism and hospitality business. Among the relatively recent tourist developments that have favorably impacted the tiny southeast Asian country’s economy is the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort complex, which opened in April 2010. The resort combines three 55-story hotel towers containing 2,561 luxury rooms and suites, a skypark with 360- degree views of Singapore’s skyline, a massive convention and trade show center, a museum, two theaters, 60- plus dining destinations, a casino, the highest “infinity-edge” rooftop swimming pool in the world, a spacious observation deck, a spa, a limousine service, metro train terminus and more. The ballroom in the flexible convention center can accommodate 6,600 people for a banquet and 11,000 for an auditorium-style lecture or presentation. And there’s a fourth tower on the drawing board.
Including the cost of the land, which was completely under water and reclaimed, the project – a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands Corporation – was developed at an investment of $5.7 billion. The bid was won in 2006, and construction commenced in early 2007. Amazingly it took only three years to complete. The architect of this remarkable integrated facility is the internationally renowned, Haifa-born Moshe Safdie, whose family moved to Canada when he was 15 but who is identified as an Israeli-Canadian. Safdie has a branch office in Jerusalem, where his landmark designs include Hebrew Union College, the David Citadel Hotel, the Mamilla Mall, and the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem. Other projects in Israel that bear his imprint include Ben-Gurion Airport and the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.
When the Singapore government published the Marina Bay tender, it was looking for a design concept that would become as synonymous with Singapore as the Sydney Opera House is with Australia.
Las Vegas Sands chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to Yad Vashem, was impressed with what Safdie had done there and commissioned him to design the Marina Bay Sands, which is distinctively different from anything else one can see in Singapore. Completely contemporary yet majestic, looming tall against the skyline and filled with natural light, it is a treasure trove of adventure; even in a whole week, one never gets to see it all.
Most Asian airlines operate on a policy of pampering the passenger, even in economy class. But airline pampering cannot compare to what happens at Marina Bay, where staff are trained to recognize guests instantly and treat each one as a VIP. It’s as close as one gets to feeling like royalty.
Marina Bay is a short ride from Changi Airport, which is arguably one of the most beautiful airports in the world, enveloped by attractive gardens and displaying an abundance of orchids in the arrivals lounge.
Aesthetics are an important feature of Singapore.
Almost everywhere one goes, one sees exquisite and exotic combinations of flowers, shrubs and trees.
One also sees extraordinary examples of modern architecture, which somehow manage to complement the traditional colonial-style architecture that was the hallmark of British rule and has been beautifully preserved.
It was Sir Stamford Raffles who brought British rule to Singapore in 1819 and established a British port that became an important trading center for southeast Asia, particularly India and China. The Japanese conquered and occupied Singapore from 1942 to 1945, after which the British regained control but granted the indigenous population increasing degrees of self-government. In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia – a short-lived marriage that ended in divorce after a series of disputes and civil unrest. Finally, on August 9, 1965, Singapore became an independent republic.
Although it’s a happy-go-lucky, shop-till-youdrop country, with many shopping malls, and shopping districts such as Little India and Little China, Singapore is more of a benign dictatorship than a democracy – something that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Whether one talks to business executives, young employees or cab drivers, the answer is always the same: The government cares about the welfare of the people. The economy is booming.
Unemployment stands at only 1.9 percent. There has been an appreciable increase in job openings, and there are lots of tourists.
THE FIRST familiar face for this reporter in Singapore was that of Sarina Pushkarna, who manages global media communications for Marina Bay Sands.
Pushkarna – the daughter of Indian restaurateurs Reena and Vinod Pushkarna, whose elegant eateries are located in Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – grew up in Israel and moved to Singapore six years ago. She is married to Singapore-born hi-tech executive Raj Sundarason, whose father, Singapore’s first plastic surgeon, trained in Israel. She misses Israel, which is one of the reasons she sends her twin daughters to the local Jewish kindergarten so she can converse with them in Hebrew. But she doubts that she would return to Israel to live. Many Israeli visitors to Singapore are delighted to meet up with Benny Zin, the Marina Bay Sands chief operating officer and vice president of conventions and exhibitions in Asia. Zin, like Safdie, was born in Haifa, and his easygoing, cheerful personality belies both his extensive business and air force background.
Zin was a combat pilot in the IAF and later a military attaché in Washington, and for several years he headed the Tel Nof Air Force Base. As a civilian, he was CEO of Kardan Communications, and before joining Marina Bay Sands, he was COO of the Palace Management Group, which operates luxury living communities in Miami, Florida.
While living in Los Angeles, he got to know Adelson, whom he met on the golf course. He confided that he was bored with his job in America, and Adelson offered him a challenging position to head conventions and exhibitions in Asia, starting with Macau. Two years ago, Zin moved to Singapore, where he says he loves every minute, “because there’s always room for enterprise.” He also likes that teachers earn high salaries, food and public transportation are cheap, and the government builds affordable housing every year.
Another thing that appeals to him is that Singapore has strict regulations aimed at preventing corruption. “They’re probably the strictest in the world,” he says.
The Singapore government was initially reluctant to open a casino, but realized that as long as it could institute rules to nip corruption or gambling problems in the bud, the casino would be a valuable source of income. While there is free entry to anyone who produces a foreign passport, Singaporeans have to pay Sing$100 (about $80) every time they enter the casino, or alternatively an annual levy of Sing$2,000. The money goes straight to the government, not the casino.
Zin is at a loss to understand why there are no legalized casinos in Israel.
He believes they would help increase government revenues.
Many years ago, Adelson made repeated attempts to open a casino in Eilat, but a series of Israeli governments rebuffed him. He’s given up on the idea, but Michael Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands as well as president and CEO of Marina Bay Sands, would like to see an integrated resort complex including a casino, not in Eilat, but in Tel Aviv, which he thinks is a more suitable location. Still, he doubts any plan that included a casino could get past the opposition of the Orthodox rabbinate.
Based on the success of its existing integrated resort complexes in Macau and Singapore, says Leven, Sands is making further inroads into Asia and is looking to open similar ventures in Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and Korea – though not to the exclusion of other parts of the world. Moving into Asia has undoubtedly been worthwhile for the Sands Group.
According to Leven, “Asia represents 90% of our profitability.”
BEYOND MANAGEMENT, one can find signs of Israel in the dining destinations and the shops. Dead Sea cosmetics are on sale; Lev Leviev has a prestige jewelry store at lobby level; and Pushkarna’s brother Kunal, who also grew up in Israel, has a restaurant, Pita Pan, with a mezuza on the doorpost and the kind of Middle Eastern cuisine one gets in the Jewish state – shakshuka, pita, eggplant salad, humous, tehina, s’hug, etc. Los Angeles-born David Almany, the executive chef at the Osteria Mozza restaurant, which specializes in Italian cuisine, prepares a strictly vegetarian meal for his guest from Israel. He doesn’t need to be told about kashrut; he’s a member of the tribe who has been to Israel many times and dreams of having his own restaurant in Tel Aviv. His grandmother lives in Haifa, and his father’s family lives on Kibbutz Nahshon.
For anyone interested in how hotel food is prepared in such a large complex, there are occasional “underground” tours into what can only be described as a subterranean village that staff call the heart of the house. Ruling this area is executive chef Christopher Christie, who hails from Canada and is responsible for the Marina Bay Sands’ own restaurants and banquet catering – including staff dining rooms where more than 7,500 meals are served daily on a 24-hour basis, with tremendous buffet choices and a separate halal section for Muslim workers.
Cleanliness and hygiene levels must meet the highest standards. When told that the only thing missing is a kosher section, Christie replies that preparing kosher food is easy because all the kitchens are stainless steel and can easily be kashered. In fact, he says, he has already catered a kosher banquet, and was amused that the Jewish client giving him instructions about kosher catering knew less about kashrut than he did. When he was still in Canada, he catered a lot of kosher functions, and is thoroughly familiar with Jewish dietary laws.
Because there are so many attractions within the complex, guests really have no need to go anywhere else. But for those with limited time who want to do a little exploring and learn something of the country’s history, the best option is to take a river cruise along the Singapore River. The boats come straight into Marina Bay, so there’s no need to go very far in order to board.
The cruise takes roughly an hour and includes an excellent narrated video program in perfect sync with the speed of the boat, so that one can look at the screen and then out of the window and know exactly which building the narrator is describing. Since the narration includes background history and culture, the cruise is a perfect orientation tour for those who have the time.
The writer was the guest of Marina Bay Sands Singapore.