The Spielberg effect

Dec 12, 2008
*Special to asia!
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Genting International’s Lim Kok Thay trumps the competition by playing the Spielberg card. In the end, it was Steven Spielberg who clinched the deal for the Genting group to operate a casino in Singapore.

Of course, in Singapore the casino is never referred to by name. What Genting secured on paper is the right to operate an integrated resort, IR in short, on the holiday island of Sentosa, a stone’s throw from the main island. That a casino happens to be a component of the IR is just one of those things that Genting and Spielberg took pains to avoid mentioning in case they upset their host, the government of Singapore.

After decades of holding an anti-gambling stance, straight-laced Singapore relented and granted at least two IR licences. (A third is on the way, if talk in the Singapore market is anything to go by.) One, on mainland Singapore, had been secured by Sands, the Las Vegas casino outfit which also operates a new and highly successful casino on Macau. The second one, hotly contested by four parties, was recently given to Genting.

Securing the licence is a feather in the cap for Lim Kok Thay, chairman of Genting International, a publicity-shy 55-year-old who inherited the mantle from his father, Lim Goh Tong, who built Malaysia’s first casino in the 1960s.

Lim has pulled out all the stops to win the race, which will cost him and his partners at least US$5 billion. He hired world-class architects and brought in Universal Studios as a partner. Universal will build and operate a theme park on the IR while Genting will run the casino and other amenities.

Despite this, Genting was on the verge of losing out. Lim was facing the formidable opposition of Bahamas-based Kerzner International, which had teamed up with CapitaLand, a listed property developer owned by the Singapore government.

Many punters had assumed CapitaLand, which had lost out to Sands, would get the Sentosa IR licence as compensation. Apart from the impressive lineup, CapitaLand may also have had another trump card up its sleeve—Disneyland.

According to the Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao, CapitaLand had teamed up with the Walt Disney Company to operate a Disneyland theme park on the east coast of Singapore. This Disneyland would have been up to four times the size of the one in Hong Kong, which opened its doors last year. Disney is said to be willing to put down a stake in Singapore, but only on condition that it would be the only character-based theme park in the country. In other words, if Disney was in, Universal would be out, and so would Genting.

On paper, this worked well for Singapore. If Genting were given the IR licence, Singapore would only have one theme park. But if the licence went to Kerzner/CapitaLand, Singapore would have a theme park—albeit not a character-based one— on Sentosa, and a Disneyland on the east coast. It was clear which arrangement was more beneficial to the country.

Then Lim Kok Thay pulled in Steven Spielberg. The famed director and head of the DreamWorks studio, which produced animation hits such as Shrek 1 and 2, made a video presentation to the Singapore authorities assessing the bids.

He promised to open an animation studio in the IR, and revealed that he would be the creative consultant to Universal and involved in designing the rides.

"Universal's parks are about more than just riding the movies. Because what we do so well at Universal is to put people inside incredible and timeless stories and make them superheroes, these are the kinds of experience that create memories that can last a lifetime, and only Universal has the experience to bring them to life," he said.

Singapore, always enamoured by big names and keen on promoting animation, was bowled over by his presentation, and Genting was given the licence. Now it remains to be seen whether Disney will keep to its word and reject Singapore as a site for its theme park.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih