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.'
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
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
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
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