Singapore warms to casino - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

TABCORP and Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting are likely to get serious about Singapore's first casino licence after former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew shifted ground yesterday and lent his support to legalised gambling.

The former leader and now official minister mentor to his son Lee Hsien Loong's government, hinted strongly that an end was coming to the island nation's 40-year ban on casinos.

The Singapore Government is now expected to give the official go-ahead today for up to two casinos.

Two sites have been earmarked for the developments, one on an empty marina facing the CBD, and another on Sentosa Island, a resort island popular with locals and tourists.

Melbourne-based Tabcorp and PBL are among 19 international bidders to submit concepts.

Tabcorp, which owns Star City casino in Sydney, Conrad Jupiters on the Gold Coast, Conrad Treasury in Brisbane and Jupiters in Townsville, announced a $1.55 billion plan in February to build a casino resort and theme park in Singapore.

"Our plan is to position Singapore as the entertainment capital of Asia," Tabcorp chief executive Matthew Slatter said.

PBL, owner of Melbourne's Crown and Perth's Burswood casinos, has plans to submit a tender with its Hong Kong/Macau joint venture partner, Melco International.

The 50-50 partners own a company that is developing a new hotel and casino in Macau, the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong.

PBL teamed up with Melco, controlled by the family of Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho, last year to expand their gaming interests in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Quoting Mr Lee on the casino issue yesterday, Singapore's Straits Times newspaper remarked that he had changed his stance.

"The world could pass us by without one. Should we stay as we are?" Mr Lee said in a speech given on Saturday.

"I wish we could. But we have to decide what is our future."

During his 25 years as prime minister, Mr Lee vigorously opposed the revenue-pulling power of gambling and other forms of popular culture.

The plan for a casino amid an integrated resort has sparked a rare outcry in the nation where voices of dissent are rarely heard.

Casinos have been banned in Singapore since independence in 1965, although lotteries and horse racing are legal, and Singaporeans gamble millions on cruises and at casinos abroad.

Nineteen bidders including the biggest names in the business have submitted concept proposals for the resort, which would also include convention facilities, retail outlets and a variety of other distractions.

With the tab estimated at $US2 billion ($A2.6 billion) and the resort expected to be completed in 2009, most expect visitors to come largely from South-East Asia and China, where the middle class has been growing rapidly.

Apart from Tabcorp and PBL, Las Vegas giants Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Kerzner International and Wynn Resorts have lodged licence bids.

The resort is considered central to a target of doubling tourism numbers to 17 million a year and encouraging visitors to stay in Singapore longer than the usual stopover of two days.

The city-state is eager to boost its 6 to 8 per cent share of the Asian tourism pie and diversify.

Long dependent on exports, its manufacturing sector has been hurt by competition from such low-cost countries as China and India.

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