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The Straits Times, 20 Apr 04

Casino decision in 6 to 9 months
By Laurel Teo
Govt to choose if ban should go after careful study

THE Government will decide in about six to nine months whether it will allow a casino here, after wide consultation and careful study of its social and economic implications.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament yesterday that the casino consideration was targeted at tourists, as part of a strategy to broaden Singapore's tourism offerings. 'At one end of the spectrum, budget airlines will make air travel cheaper for which we need to build more two- and three-star hotels. 'At the other end of the spectrum, we must be able to attract our share of the rich and famous for which casinos might be an attraction.'

Steps would be taken to shield 'more susceptible' Singaporeans, he added, a point he reiterated a few times to reassure members of the House in question-and-answer time.

Among the six MPs who spoke, the main concerns were the social ills that gambling could bring and if a casino was an absolute must-have here to boost the economy. The possibility of a casino here has stirred a public debate, after it was first raised by Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo last month. During the Budget Debate, he revealed plans to link Sentosa with the Southern Islands to develop a world-class resort that could include a casino for the well-heeled.

Yesterday, MP Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) asked what factors would lead to having a casino and when that decision would be made. Dr Balakrishnan's reply: 'The decision will be made hopefully in the next two or three quarters. I cannot be more definite about that.' But he dismissed as 'speculation' reports of any formal negotiations or consultations with casino operators.

While the Government has long been averse to having a casino because of potential ill effects on society, it is now considering reversing the ban 'because of the rapidly changing tourism landscape in the region', he said. Batam already has casinos, while Thailand is also considering new laws to allow them, even as billions of investment dollars are pouring into Macau to make it the Las Vegas of the East, he said. Faced with such competition and the rapidly growing affluence in Asia, 'we have to upgrade and broaden our tourism product offering'.

He said the earlier social concerns remained valid, stressing that the Government would carefully study regulations in other countries. Many of these do not allow their own citizens free access to casinos, he said, pointing out more stringent standards in South Korea and Monaco, where no locals at all are allowed to enter.

MPs remained concerned as one after another rose to air their worries. Madam Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC) asked if the Government's study would include the impact on families and the debt situation here, while Nominated MP Braema Mathi wanted more research on gambling-related vice rings involving prostitution and drugs. Mr Gan Kim Yong (Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC) questioned if the ministry had explored options besides a successful tourist resort. NMP Ngiam Tee Liang, meanwhile, asked for a firm estimate on how much dividends - in terms of the growth in revenue and jobs - Singapore would earn from such an investment.

Dr Balakrishnan reassured them that the Government would study all implications. The casino was just one out of many proposals under consideration, and one which it would not adopt out of 'a panic reaction'. He added: 'I think, if we adopt this in our usual, in our uniquely Singaporean manner of being pragmatic, realistic and sensible about it, we might be able to fashion a win-win solution, although that's not typical of gambling.'

Singapore Casino concerns
Reflecting the ongoing public debate over the pros and cons of having a casino here, MPs rose to air several concerns, from the social ills to the economic benefits gambling could bring.

Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Vivian Balakrishnan stressed that the Government will consider all implications carefully and consult widely

Strong views over different treatment of locals

'Given these readily available alternatives, with the indications that there may be a different treatment of Singaporeans versus non-Singaporeans... that has aroused a lot of passion among several groups of Singaporeans.' - Mr S. Iswaran (West Coast GRC)

Hard to shield Singaporeans from social ills
'I find it hard to be persuaded that we could insulate Singaporeans if you have a casino for foreigners only. Since it also involves creating jobs, therefore Singaporeans would have to go to the casino to work... There will be social implications...' - Miss Irene Ng (Tampines GRC)

Figures for revenue and job creation?
'I was just wondering about the potential revenue impact to the Government and the potential job growth rate... Do we have estimates of that to see whether we really are talking of a sizeable potential investment that has a lot of benefits for Singaporeans?' - NMP Ngiam Tee Liang

Is this the final resort?
'Is a casino operation a fundamental element of a successful resort of the tourism industry, and has the minister or the ministry explored other possible models before we... allow casinos in Singapore?' - Mr Gan Kim Yong (Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC)

What about those in debt and their families?
'Would the study that the ministry will be conducting also include the study on the social implications of having such a casino, in particular Singaporeans' indebtedness and how that will affect families?' - Madam Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC)

Focus on tourism market
'Our objective, if at all we do embark on this, is to address the tourism market... As far as our local population is concerned, our chief preoccupation has been and remains the social impact of gambling on some susceptible members of our population.' - Dr Balakrishnan

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