Singapore to announce decision on casino next week - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Singapore will announce next week whether it will allow a casino to be built after months of debate over whether economic benefits outweigh the social costs of expanding legalized gambling in Southeast Asia's most prosperous country.

Opinion polls, hundreds of letters to newspapers, Web site discussion groups and "Casi-NO" bumper stickers show Singaporeans are split, with many concerned that more organized gambling could increase crime and other social problems in one of Asia's safest cities.

The cabinet made the final decision, which will be announced in Parliament on Monday. But the public nature of the debate underscored a degree of openness in decision-making in Singapore, where opposition to government policies is rare.

The casino could become a campaign issue when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seeks a fresh mandate as early as in the next few months, giving a small, weak political opposition some ammunition against the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959.

Opponents of the casino acknowledge they may be on the losing side.

"I think the government will go ahead with the casino. We have to live with it but we have made our stance clear," said Arthur Tan, a founding member of Families Against the Casino Threat, a group that organized an online petition signed by more than 30,000 Singaporeans opposed to more gambling.

Some speculate the government will allow two casinos. Tricia Song, a property analyst at G.K. Goh Securities, says a second casino would introduce competition and provide officials with benchmarks to regulate the industry.

Nineteen of the world's top gaming companies have proposed projects.

Singapore hopes that billions spent on casinos with theme parks and hotels will grow its 184 billion Singapore dollar (US$112 billion;euro87 billion) domestic economy, attract high-spending tourists and create hundreds of jobs, particularly for workers who don't have the skills for the high-tech jobs that Singapore now focuses on creating.

Nomura Singapore Ltd. economist Tomo Kinoshita says a casino would likely boost Singapore's economy by 0.6 percent a year and create 13,000 jobs. It is also expected to liven up Singapore's staid image.

A casino at home could attract hundreds of millions of dollars that Singaporeans spend each year gambling in Las Vegas, Macau, and other locations.

The government has said it will take safeguards to protect the public against social ills caused by gambling. These include restricting access to rich Singaporeans who can afford to gamble and even building a center to treat addiction to gambling. Casinos, like tobacco companies, will also not be allowed to advertise locally.

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