As part of the 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 their 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. This little room was quite difficult to find – it was located at the back of the Theatre complex next to the main road and bus-stop, and beside the Sports betting facility run by Singapore Pools (discreetly shielded behind windows plastered with images of sports cars and athletic bodies, though a peek inside will tell you most of the punters do not aspire to any kind of athleticism). You realize, upon entering this small and sparsely decorated room, that it is probably an office used for recruitment purposes – there is a registration booth, enough sitting space for about 16 people and 4-5 rooms with closed doors (possibly for interviewing), each with a cheesy slogan like “respect”, “service”, “integrity” and “empowerment” . On one wall is a large photograph of the Marina Bay Sands, and about four computer terminals face the visitors, possibly for use by job seekers to register themselves.
It became clear quite quickly that these corporate slogans would become a hymn that gets replayed again and again throughout our sojourn at MBS. Welcoming us to the open house, the guide, a human resource officer of MBS, 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 are donated to the adopted charities of MBS. In fact, 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 felt quite terrifying to me.
The first stop of the tour was the Hotel Lobby, which we accessed through the underground retail space. Once there, we were led to Renku, the rebranded restaurant-bar where the manager introduced himself and gave us a rundown of what Renku offers. I don’t remember much of what he said, except something about the special “dessert trolley” which, at that time, was weaving around the patrons in front of us. What occupied my attention was the overhead bridge that flew above us, cutting through the lofty lobby and connecting the waterfront on one side of this massive development to the Gardens by the Bay on the other side (Fig. 1). It was one of the many instances of the clash of public and private interests in this development – the government imposing a public connection between the waterfront and the garden and the corporation desiring a hermetic environment to enclose its patrons in comfortable and exclusive isolation. The architect, in this instance, resolved this conflict with a bridge that flies above the lobby, making the connection while preserving the distance between the two realms. Yet, it also created a strange reversal in perspective – where esteemed guests usually are hidden from and look out to the public realm, here, members of the public look down from the bridge onto the unsuspecting tea-sipping patrons of Renku and hotel guests waiting in the hotel lobby.
The manager ended his presentation by leading us to the Herb Garden just off to one side of the restaurant. It is where, he 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). We were each given a glass of iced lemon grass water. Some of us asked the guide how this garden could possibly supply all the herbs needed for this complex. The answer was no, it doesn’t. Again, the guide (a representation 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. At this point, we were advised not to take any more photographs, though, the guide divulged, pictures of what we were about to see can be found on Youtube and personal websites. I would discover, after this tour, that what we saw had been similarly featured in documentaries and other promotional media. What we saw was, thus, merely the supplementary façade of the visible MBS icon, a peek designed to instil even greater awe at the magnitude and magnificence of the building, rather than revealing its seamy or tawdry side.
At this security gantry, what was most striking to me was not the entire security apparatus of gates and cameras and guards (I had expected that), but the rows of computer terminals and posters where workers registered themselves, or accessed the internet, or checked up on the timetable of the company bus that would ferry them home. The hymns stepped up a notch here – the walls were plastered with murals that displayed sustainability and green standards in terms of waste generation, electricity usage and target no. of staff or team members. Each month was tracked, showing whether these targets were met by the colour of the bars. It seems that, 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 – and indeed, the guide was always helpful in orienting us to where we were in relation to the building above us (“we are now under the hotel …” ), knowing well that it was normal to be disoriented once we descended into this subterranean world. What appeared before us was a Human Resource Office and counter, ATM machines and a 7/11 store (which according to the guide was a “top grossing” branch in Singapore). 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 reason, 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.
At this interface between the Heart and the outside world was also a bodily transformation – the collection or deposition of uniforms. This was an industry in and of itself. If you are collecting your uniform, you approach one of the 18 small gates on the wall, scan your card and wait for one of the 18 conveyor belts in the garment hall to transport your uniform to you. If you are depositing your uniform, there are chutes to do so. All uniforms are affixed with Radio Frequency Identification chips that are linked to individual staff members. It also means that every uniformed staff is trackable within the premises of MBS. We saw men and women come in, collect their uniforms and proceed to the changing/shower areas where they transformed into MBS employees. Or Team Members.
We entered the garment hall – a large warehouse space abuzz with conveyor belts working to meet the urgent task of transforming anonymous bodies into traceable and cheerful team members. The guide – a middle-aged lady – was once again eager to tell us about the scale of operations – the total number of garments in circulation, the number of uniforms each staff are given … . Subsequently, on a website, I read that there are “160,000 pieces of uniform with 600 different designs”. Washing and cleaning however is outsourced. I also witnessed a number of workers entering this hall to request for their uniforms (rather than collecting them through the small gates). We were informed that these were temporary/part-time workers.
By then, it was about 3:30pm. We were informed that this was the end of the tour and they would like us to have lunch in the canteen. It was quite disappointing for me, as I had hoped to venture more deeply into the Heart. We proceeded to the canteen which was next to the garment hall. Along the way, the guide told me that there is another canteen in the Heart closer to the casinos. This was because casino workers observed a rather different schedule characterized by a number of short 20 min breaks. They also required special security clearance.
Surfing the web will reveal images of the canteen, and purportedly important guests could also be “found” dining here. From what I saw though, most of the diners were menial workers of MBS, and some office-workers as well. But what struck me was the food. The food was arranged in a buffet-style and there were individual sections, like Chinese, Halal and a salad bar, for example. It felt like a slice of glamour aboveground had found its way into the subterranean world. There were lamb casserole, cheeses, mussels and other buffet-like items that one might not expect to find in a worker’s canteen. Yet, these dishes were also incredibly bland, and it seems to me that the difference between the two worlds was registered in the tastelessness of the food. Some elements of glamour survived the transition underground – on the salad bar were bottles of “cold pressed macadamia oil”, “pumpkin oil” and “sherry dressing”.
During lunch, I struck up a conversation with a family who was part of the troupe. They had brought their son to tour MBS as he was contemplating a career in hospitality. The father seemed quite impressed with the set-up, and the son, extremely articulate, shared his thoughts about the other hotels they had visited. Only MBS, he said, did the tour give you a peek “behind-the-scene”. Other tours they had participated in generally stayed within the lobbies or suites. I was not able to get any further with the conversation as it was once again time to leave. Exiting the canteen, we caught one last glimpse of what laid deeper in the Heart of House – an endless row of steel cabinets lined the corridor as far as I could see. Presumably these were where the workers kept their personal effects while they were at work. A little teddy-bear keychain hanging on one of the locks hinted at the private lives of these tagged workers. We turned round the corner and came face to face with the 7/11 store, and it was much much smaller than I had anticipated …
As we walked towards the security gates, I asked the guide if it was possible for the workers to move up from the Heart of House to a specific part of the MBS (hotel, casino, restaurant, for example) directly, and the answer was an enthusiastic yes – “we wouldn’t want them to walk through the public areas”. By then, we had removed our wrist bands and were walking individually to the sentry. I was stopped by the security guard when I did not pause at the gates. He pointed to my bag and seemed somewhat miffed that I had not volunteered to let him check it.
“New here?” He muttered under his breadth.
“No, I am one of the visitors.” I countered, and I was let through.
In that instant, the gospel of MBS that had rung in 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 actually felt more at ease – I much preferred the forthright discipline of the security complex to the insidious hymns of the Corporation gospel.
I walked out and found myself right at the underground exit of the train station. It was a long tunnel, enlivened with Sol Lewitt-esque art, directly under the hotel block (Fig. 4). I imagined that the workers of MBS could easily take mass transit to Bayfront station, enter the underground “Heart of House”, change into their uniforms, before popping up into the hotels and restaurants above to serve the guests of MBS. It was a seamless transition, but also a complete segregation of labor and leisure. I decided then it was time for some leisure and sat down at Starbucks in MBS for coffee and to write my notes. There, I was reminded again of the MBS “premium” – a Starbucks cappuccino anywhere else in Singapore (except perhaps Changi Airport) costs $4.50. At MBS, it is $5.10. I imagine that $0.60 might go towards filling the buffet in the canteens, or be donated to some adopted charity, or transferred to the government as tax, or, in an infinitesimal manner, contribute to the corporate profits enjoyed by the senior management of MBS and the millions of shareholders around the world.