Singapore Casino decision issue - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

The government has rolled the dice on the casino issue, but exactly how the chips have fallen will only be known on Monday when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces the decision in Parliament.

It all started in about March last year, when then-Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo said in Parliament the government was now open to the idea of a casino but only as part of an integrated resort development, possibly in Sentosa.
Tourism, one of the mainstays of Singapore's economy, was viewed as losing its shine, and something had to be done to add extra buzz.

Singapore Management University economist Winston Koh predicts it could add up to 1 to 2 percent to GDP growth.

Singaporeans are no strangers to gambling.

Officially they wage over S$6 billion annually on anything from 4D to horse racing, while another S$2 billion is spent by Singaporeans gambling in overseas casinos.

Experts say that with its own casino, Singapore could stem such leakage while rejuvenating the local tourism and entertainment scene and, more importantly, creating jobs.

Said PK Basu, managing director of Robust Economic Analysis, "The main benefit of having a casino and gaming industry is that it provides a stable source of income and employment over the medium term."

But beyond the economic benefits, some immediately questioned the social consequences.

Religious groups such as the Catholic Church and MUIS expressed their clear objection, while a group of Singaporeans started an online petition against a casino and garnered over 30,000 signatures.

Social workers pointed to the possible social ills that could arise, such as gambling addiction.

Said Dr Munidasa Winslow of the Institute of Mental Health, "In our experience, nobody started gambling with the idea to become a pathological gambler. Most of them start quite innocuously with a few games where they make a few wins. Before the person realises, he will progress and get more involved."

Recovering gambling addict "John" said in a Channel NewsAsia interview that a casino at his doorstep would be a temptation.

"If you set up a place in Sentosa, it's so accessible, everybody can go there," he said.

The government acknowledged that safeguards must be put in place, and launched a study on gambling in December.

It concluded that 2 percent, or 55,000, of Singaporeans could be at risk of gambling addiction.

The Institute of Mental Health has expanded its services to deal with the growing number of those with addiction problems.

The government also laid out some minimum guidelines to protect Singaporeans when it called for concept proposals in December.

Singaporeans would have to be at least 21 and pay either a S$100 fee or S$2,000 annual fee to be allowed to gamble, while public education will be key.

And it is clear the decision was a difficult one, as the Cabinet was split.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said, "I am not giving secrets by telling you the Cabinet is divided. The moralists are strongly opposed, the pragmatists who say, that's not the right way and those who say, look, the world is this way."

MPs raised the issue in Parliament as well, with some calling for the Whip to be lifted so members could vote with their conscience.

Prime Minister Lee made clear that the issue was not of national sovereignty nor of conscience, since gambling was already allowed.

But he said that a Ministerial statement would be made to explain whatever decision was made by the Cabinet.

Two areas have been proposed for a lease of 60 years: a 35.6 hectare site in Sentosa or a 9.4 hectare site at Marina Bayfront.

Nineteen concept proposals were received by the deadline at the end of February.

In March a report by a US investment bank said an integrated resort could achieve an annual revenue of over S$3 billion, and recapture more than half the amount Singaporeans spent overseas.

As the date of the announcement drew closer, it seemed clearer that the green light would be given.

Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang had said, "If the Minister for Trade and Industry does not advocate the setting up of the integrated resort in Singapore, then I am in the wrong job."

Earlier this week, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said a decision had been made, and that he would also speak during the coming Parliament session.

Just a day later, Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan said the Cabinet had made a difficult decision on a complicated issue, and now it was up to everyone to give ideas on how to make the decision work.

Meanwhile, Minister Mentor Lee said that while he had rejected a casino in the past, he was not sure this generation of leaders could do so.

Whatever the case, political analysts say the government must explain its stance clearly.

Assistant Professor Suzaina Kadir of the National University of Singapore said, "Most people are quite prepared for which way it is going to swing, so it's a matter of hearing the announcement on the 18th and more importantly the reasons that are going to be given for the decision."

If the nod is given for a casino, the bidding and review progress is expected to take 6 to 9 months before an Integrated Resort licence is awarded.

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