Asia lays bet on casino gambling - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

This week Singapore agreed to build two casino resorts aimed at overseas visitors, ending a 40-year-old ban.

With an estimated price tag of $3bn, the two resorts will feature hotels, restaurants, theme parks and other entertainment facilities.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore, a tightly run city-state of four million people, had to stay competitive in the Asian tourist market.

"We cannot stand still," he told parliament. "The whole region is on the move. If we don't change, where will we be in 20 years?"

Singapore wants to double the number of tourists it receives within 10 years - and sees casinos as the way to achieve this. Other countries in the region, including Thailand, Japan and Indonesia, are considering following suit.

The lure of tax revenues and job creation is strong, as well as the promise of luring high-spending tourists.

Governments are taking note of the booming casino industry in Macau, a former Portuguese colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1999.

Last year Macau's gambling revenues from its 17 casinos topped $5bn, roughly on a par with Las Vegas.

The majority of gamblers were from mainland China, where the practice is banned but deeply rooted in local culture.

"Macau is trying to set itself up as the Las Vegas of Asia," said Jan McMillen, director of the Center for Gambling Research at the Australian National University.

Moral objections

But many social and religious groups in Asia remain opposed to casinos and organised gambling on moral and practical grounds.

Even in Singapore, where public debate is normally muted, more than 29,000 people signed a petition against allowing casinos.

The city-state's former leader Lee Kuan Yew rejected a similar casino plan in 1965.

In his memoirs, he revealed that his father had been a compulsive blackjack player who pawned his wife's jewellery.

However he has backed the decision by Prime Minister Lee - his son - as an economic necessity for Singapore.

Government officials say they would charge local gamblers a $63 entrance fee to deter those without the means to play.

But opponents to the plan say this does not go far enough.

"There are many ingenuous ways for compulsive gamblers to sidetrack this rule. People can still get hurt," said Arthur Tan, a businessman who has campaigned against casinos.

Thai concern

Thailand is among the other countries in the region mulling its options on organised gambling.

It currently allows betting only on national lotteries and at racetracks.

Government officials have floated the idea of licensing casinos in tourist resorts, and a Malaysian gaming company has already reportedly offered to build a glitzy casino near the holiday island of Phuket.

But observers say Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra needs to tread cautiously or risk incurring the wrath of religious leaders.

In March the brewer of Thailand's favourite beer, Chang, was forced to cancel a stock exchange listing after Buddhist monks led thousands of protesters opposed to the move.

A similar uproar could follow any easing of the rules on gambling.

"I suspect that casinos are in the same category and may meet the same objections, so that's why the government is being very cautious," said Pasuk Phongpaichit, a professor at Chulalongkorn University and an expert of Thailand's underground economy.

Despite the ban on gambling at home, many Thais enjoy a flutter at border casinos in neighbouring Cambodia and Burma.

A similar trend is found in Singapore, whose gamblers cross the border to Malaysia's casinos in the Genting Highlands.

One study found that Singaporeans spend $735m a year on overseas gambling.

Economists say Singapore could capture some of that money for itself by permitting casino gambling at home.

Scaling down

One country that already has a reputation for being a popular destination for Asian gamblers is Australia.

However the promised windfall in tax revenues and jobs has not always materialised, according to Jan McMillen.

Concerns have also risen over the number of Australian gambling addicts and in recent years casinos have been forced to cut back.

"We're in shutdown mode. It's fascinating to look at the rest of the world and wonder if they've learned from our experience," said Ms McMillen.

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