July 10, 2006

Singapore’s Sentosa seeks Monaco glitz

By Sebastian Tong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Turning Singapore's southern island
of Sentosa into Asia's glitziest address could be quite a

The British colonial rulers used Sentosa as a fort, while
the Japanese carried out massacres on its beaches during World
War Two. After independence in 1965, Singapore turned the
island into a much-ridiculed tourist site.

Now Sentosa -- about three times the area of Monaco -- is
being developed to be Asia's answer to the French Riviera and a
hang-out for the rich and famous.

Sentosa's development is part of Singapore's wider economic
makeover. As manufacturers shift jobs to low-cost rivals such
as China, the city-state of 4.4 million people will have to
rely more on services such as private banking and tourism for

Singapore is already Asia's leading private banking center,
catering to wealthy Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesians and

With two casinos, one on Sentosa, due to open as soon as
2009, Singapore hopes that Asia's high rollers will consider
buying a luxury pied-a-terre in Sentosa.

Minutes away from a musical fountain and artificial
enclosure for pink dolphins, development is in full swing for
the billion-dollar casino, a marina and hundreds of seafront
homes at Sentosa Cove, a large area reclaimed from the sea on
island's southeastern tip.

Homes and apartments are set along man-made waterways,
while a five-star hotel, luxury shops and marina club to house
mega yachts are designed to add to the area's appeal to the

With a price tag of between S$6 million and S$14 million
($4 million-$9 million) and private berths for owners' yachts,
the luxury homes are being pitched to international jet-setters
-- the kind who might otherwise buy a second or third home at
The Palm Islands or The World Islands in Dubai.


Still, Sentosa -- which sits along one of the busiest
shipping lanes in the world and overlooks Singapore's huge oil
refineries -- has some way to go before it becomes a high-class

There are no beaches, just sea walls at Sentosa Cove.
Residents' sea views will be filled with dozens of ships at
anchor or in transit, while strong currents and dirty water
deter swimmers.

Elsewhere on the island, there are sheltered man-made
beaches but few people swim in the water.

Backpackers' bible "The Lonely Planet Guide" describes it
as an "entirely synthetic attraction" with its beaches of
imported sand and forest trails marked with fake dinosaur

An 11-story fiberglass half-lion, half-fish Merlion -- a
mythical beast invented by Singapore as its mascot -- which has
laser light beams shooting out of its eyes is "among the
trashier" of Sentosa's attractions, the guidebook says.

"There have been constant revisions to its attractions
because there is always a sense it could be a bigger draw,"
Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler told Reuters.

Sentosa saw 5 million visitors in 2005 -- the highest ever
-- but the majority were daytrippers. The island has struggled
over the years to lure tourists with attractions such as the
now-defunct volcano show -- featuring showers of styrofoam
rocks and loud rumbling -- and water-slide parks.

A less obvious tourist attraction in the 1990s was the
world's second-longest serving political prisoner: Chia Thye

Accused of communist ties by the government, he was
confined to a one-room guardhouse on Sentosa for 3 years, after
23 years of imprisonment without trial on the main island.

When Chia -- memorably described as a "prisoner in a theme
park" by writer Stan Sesser -- was eventually allowed to leave
Sentosa, his quarters became part of a golf course clubhouse.
There is no visible record of its previous occupant.


Now Sentosa is courting a different class of resident.

The Riadys of Indonesia's Lippo group and the Harvey family
of Australian electronics retailer Harvey Norman are said to be
among the buyers at Sentosa Cove. Officials declined to comment
but said about 60 percent of buyers were from abroad.

Several of neighboring Indonesia's wealthy business
families already have luxury homes in Singapore, including a
few whose corporate empires defaulted on huge debts in recent

The government has cut tax rates, beefed up banking privacy
laws and eased rules on property ownership to lure rich
foreigners, and is trying to shake off its staid image by
bringing in clubs such as Ministry of Sound, allowing bar-top
dancing and scrapping a decades-old ban on casinos.

In October, gaming firms including Bahamas-based Kerzner
International and privately held Las Vegas resorts developer
Eighth Wonder will submit their bids to develop a 120-acre
casino resort on Sentosa.

Malaysia's Genting group, through its affiliates Genting
International and cruise operator Star Cruises Ltd., is
offering to build a theme park with entertainment giant
Universal Studios. "Singapore is coming out of its slump of
being too austere and is starting to project a more attractive
image. It could become a sort of Asian Monte Carlo," said Mark
Vlassopulos of Eighth Wonder. "Monte Carlo is well managed,
elegant and safe but it isn't boring."

($1 = 1.594 Singapore dollar)