This week we have a guest post by Kah-Wee Lee, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. This is an abridged version of the fieldnotes posted on his blog, “Casino Urbanism: all that is solid melts into credits”.
As part of Singapore Tourism Board’s drive to promote careers in the hospitality industry, several hotels conducted “open houses” where members of the public could go on guided tours around their premises. Marina Bay Sands (MBS) had its open house on 22 Oct 2017 and I took part in it. The invitation email promised us a rare glimpse of the “heart of house”, which is the underground complex where a veritable army of workers, from cleaners to croupiers to chefs to butlers, labour away to keep MBS running 24/7.
For the 20 or so people who signed up for this event, we had to check in at the “Talent Hub” half-an-hour before the scheduled start of the tour at 2pm. It was a small and sparsely decorated room, probably an office used for recruitment purposes – there was a registration booth, enough sitting space for about 16 people and four or five rooms with closed doors which were tagged with cheesy slogans like “respect”, “service”, “integrity” and “empowerment” . On one wall was a large photograph of MBS.
It became clear quite quickly that these corporate slogans would become a gospel that gets replayed again and again throughout our sojourn at MBS. Welcoming us to the open house, the guide, a human resource officer, regaled us with a series of superlatives – “how many hotel rooms do you think there are at MBS (2000, 95-98% occupancy rate)”; “how many people work here? (9529, going on to 10K, and we call ourselves “team members”, not employees)”. Pointing to the large photograph of MBS, he impressed upon us how swiftly this building had become the icon of Singapore – anyone who “googled” Singapore 7 to 10 years ago might see images of the Merlion or Changi Airport. Today, they will most likely see MBS. Delineating the distinctiveness of the building, he pointed to the three hotel towers and the skypark, but it was at the water features that he paused for dramatic effect: “What happens to all the coins that are thrown into the canals and fountains?” They had to be regularly dredged up so that they did not clog up the system. But this mundane explanation was not the reason for his dramatic pause. “These coins were donated to the adopted charities of MBS”, he continued. “Team workers” who receive long service or performance awards are encouraged to donate their bonuses/vouchers to “contribute back to society”. Even before the tour started, the preaching had begun.
In his short essay on “Societies of Control”, philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, “We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world”. He was referring to a new modality of control that is continuous, self-modulated and omnipresent, something quite distinct from the earlier template of the factory or prison or school. Within the confines of a factory, workers are disciplined to conform to the repetitive rituals of machine-work. It was a modality of control premised on enclosure and a kind of productivity measurable in discrete quantitative units. Team-workers of the Corporation, on the other hand, are self-motivated to improve themselves, their worth measured not so much by how much they produce, but how much “passion” and “soul” they bring to their calling. Control is continuous – think the endless ever-receding goals of “service awards”, “performance targets” and “contributions back to society”. The guide’s opening speech was certainly rehearsed, but it was not mechanical. He sounded genuinely proud to be a team member of the Corporation, which terrified me.
It did not take long for the gospel to be sounded again. The first stop of the tour was Renku, the newly rebranded bar and lounge in the hotel lobby. After a short introduction by the manager, we were led to the Herb Garden just off to one side of the lounge. It is where, the manager said, chefs harvest their herbs for garnishes and cocktails. The guide told me that it was only a few months ago that they created this herb garden of about 30m by 10m. While earlier the guide preached about philanthropy, here, the gospel was about eco-utopia. These herbs were “locally grown” and plucked for “farm to table” freshness. Irrigation technologies “saved water” and make this a “sustainable” eco-system. There is a massive “digester” in the basement of MBS that processes food waste. Tags placed on the planters identified the herbs, but again this mundane function was secondary to the affective dimension that permeated all aspects of corporate culture in MBS. (Fig. 2 and 3). A representative from the restaurant impressed us with superlatives – “how many diners do we feed a day in MBS?” … “How much food is processed everyday?” It seems that the larger the amount of consumption, the more holy its mission to save the world from consumption becomes.
We finally were ready to proceed to the underground complex, or the “Heart of House”. From the Herb Garden, we walked out of the hotel, turned to the service access area (where one of the MRT exits is located), descended a flight of steps, walked through a set of doors and found ourselves standing in front of a security gantry. The gospel re-emerged as a wall mural that targeted the workers instead of us. It displayed sustainability and green standards in terms of waste generation, electricity usage and target number of staff. Each month was tracked, showing whether these targets were met by the colour of the bars. From what I could tell, food wastage had decreased over the year of 2017 and electricity targets were met about 50% of the time.
Crossing the security gantry brought us to a corridor about 6-8m wide. Concrete ceilings with exposed pipes and wiring, fluorescent lighting and vinyl (?) flooring presented quite a stark contrast to the world of coffered panelling, chandeliers and carpets directly above us. In a glance: a Human Resource Office and an open counter where a HR officer is stationed (it was however empty when we were there), ATM machines and a 7/11 store. Lined up against the wall was a cabinet of trophies and accolades won by MBS and on that same wall, rows of portraits of senior management staff were displayed. Placed on a stand was a recruitment poster offering $600 for every employee referral, and next to this poster was a set of doors that led into one of the two large canteens in the Heart of the House.
I did not ask why a HR counter was placed so close to the exit/entrance of the Heart of House. Was it in response to workers’ grievances/feedback not being heard before? Was it an attempt to address issues before they leaked from the Heart of House to the public? Whatever the reasons, the two institutions of the Corporation that immediately confronted us upon entering the Heart of House – security and human resource – speak directly to how the Corporation manages workers through a combination of therapy and discipline.
The rest of the tour brought us to the garment warehouse and the canteen. By 4pm, the tour had ended. I removed my Visitor-Pass wrist band and walked towards the gantry to exit the Heart of House. The security guard stopped me, pointing to my bag and seeming somewhat miffed that I had not volunteered to let him check it.
“New here?” He muttered under his breath.
“No, I am one of the visitors.” I countered, and he let me through.
In that instance, the gospel of MBS that rang throughout our ears for two hours switched off. No longer a privileged visitor, I was immediately a worker who must fall in place to a different tune. I was not in any way offended – I much preferred the forthright discipline of the security complex to the insidious hymns of the Corporation gospel.