Saturday August 4, 2012
Good and ugly side of casinos
INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
To discourage locals from visiting casinos, the government imposed an entry levy on Singaporeans and permanent residents, but this has not worked too well. In fact, locals today make up 30% of all casino gamblers.
TWO years after their launch, Singapore’s two mega-casinos have succeeded in attracting - in the eyes of the host - the wrong customers, vulnerable Singaporeans.
In just a short time, they have proved economically successful, propelling Singapore to become the world’s second top casino city.
Ironically, the profits have failed to impress many citizens.
Last year the two resorts, Genting Singapore and Las Vegas Sands, which were designed principally to lure in foreign gamblers, attracted some 200,000 Singaporean (and permanent resident) gamblers.
This was despite the self-exclusion orders imposed on 93,000 people mainly for reasons of bankruptcy, habitual gambling and family insistence.
I remember the city’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew once saying something to this effect: “Let the tourists play there; we Singaporeans take a proper rest and prepare for work.”
As a disincentive, the government imposed an entry levy of S$100 (RM250) or S$2,000 (RM5,000) a year on Singapore residents (including PRs), but it didn’t work too well.
In fact, locals today make up 30% of all casino gamblers. The levies collected from them totalled S$288mil (RM720mil) in the past 18 months.
The gaming revenue was even more stupendous.
Last year, Genting Singapore pulled in S$2.69bil (RM6.7bil), while Marina Bay Sands managed $2.36bil (RM5.9bil).
They propelled Singapore to leap over Las Vegas to become the world’s No. 2 casino city, behind Macau.
Economically, the resorts are a big success for their investors – and Singapore. By 2015, they are expected to bring here 17 million visitors and generate S$30bil (RM75.3bil) in tourism receipts.
Apart from the good, there also come the bad; the resorts, as predicted, do have their dark side.
Two years is too early a time to total up the precise social damage, but gambling has contributed to an extent to family break-ups, bankruptcies and suicides.
They have also raised charges of money laundering.
Today – as was during the decision-making days – it remains a controversial issue. At the time it split the cabinet down the middle which required Lee Kuan Yew to step in to resolve.
Likewise, it has now split society. On one side are people who praise their contributions to jobs and tourist spending, while others blame it for undermining the moral fabric of society.
“The government failed its duty to act as society’s moral guardian when it allowed casinos to operate in Singapore knowing the consequences to come,” said a retired teacher-friend.
“By doing so, it passed the wrong message to the young that for the sake of making money it was alright to allow casino gambling,” she added.
In apparent response to increasing pressures at home and abroad, the government plans to raise the barrier that stand in the way of excessive visits by Singaporeans. Two major changes may be implemented by year-end.
Firstly, laws will be strengthened to allow the regulator to impose a fine of up to 10% of the casinos’ annual revenues, instead of just S$1mil (RM2.51mil).
The authorities want a stricter record-keeping to prevent money laundering that is worrying some foreign governments. Corrupt officials and drug traffickers often use casinos to clean their illegal money.
Secondly, a “visit limit” is being considered to protect financially vulnerable local patrons who visit the casinos frequently.
Under the proposed new regulation, any Singaporean (and PR) who visits the casino more than five times in a given a month is considered a “high frequency” gambler.
It may compel him to show that he is not in financial distress before being allowed to visit it the sixth time.
According to the government, the negative impact of casinos is under control.
Police have arrested 112 people for casino-related crimes in the first year of operation, but the majority was of a petty nature
But in the minds of the common-folks, the evil of casino gambling is to be blamed every time someone commits suicide by jumping in front of a train or drowning himself at Bedok Reservoir.
Such cases had leaped in numbers since the casinos opened their doors, although no one has a clear picture whether gambling had driven all of them to kill themselves.
The reasons may well have nothing to do with casinos or gambling, but psychologically, it is hard to erase this from people’s minds.
Until a credible survey is carried out on the social impact of gambling, people will likely continue to believe that casinos are the main cause.
What is worrying, however, is the increase in illegal lending and harassment cases as well as the participation of youths in prostitution and loan shark running, where money is easy if they’re not caught.
To many people, casinos and money-lending live side by side.
In the first nine months of last year, there were 10,439 cases of illegal money-lending and harassment, a 24% rise over the same period in 2010.
The number of arrests rose 24% to 1,492 in similar comparisons.
Even former PM Lee, who once said Singapore would have casinos “over my dead body” before being persuaded to go along by his son, the current PM Lee Hsien Loong.
What ultimately convinced him was seeing more and more countries going into it, which would mean leaving a casino-less Singapore behind.
But he told reporters recently that he still had reservations about allowing them to operate in Singapore.
“I do not believe it is a good idea to expect people to get rich by luck. Especially in casinos,” Lee said.