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Today, 20 Apr 04

Casino decision in 9 months
Tor Ching Li
Dr Balakrishnan allays worries of MPs over potential negative impacts

A DECISION for a casino on Sentosa will be made over the next nine months. This was revealed by Minister of State for Trade and Industry Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday as he fended off MPs' arguments that a local casino will up the "sin" factor in Singapore.

Dr Balakrishnan also put down media speculation that the Government was already in talks with casino operators. To MPs' concerns of a casino breeding social ills such as class divides, prostitution and drugs, Dr Balakrishnan assured the House that the Government is "painfully aware of the potential negative impacts on Singaporeans, especially those on lower incomes".

But with the rapidly- growing affluence of Asia, the billion-dollar investments in Macau to make it the Las Vegas of the East, and even Thailand's recent move to legalise casinos, Dr Balakrishnan said: "We have to upgrade and broaden our tourism product offering in Singapore."

However, should a casino be built, he added, "access to it by Singaporeans will have to be controlled".

This prompted MP for Tampines Irene Ng to raise the concern that restricted access may then lead to class consciousness among Singaporeans. With Singaporeans working within the casino, she asked: "How are we going to insulate Singaporeans from gambling? It has been shown that casinos do lead to higher bankruptcy rates."

Nominated MP Braema Mathi also highlighted problems such as prostitution and drugs. But Dr Balakrishnan said this is "not the time to indulge in or create class consciousness or cleavages in our society". He also added that it was time for Singapore to move away from being "so middle-of-the-road that it is in danger of being bypassed" a criticism from the International Advisory Council for Tourism last year.

As Singapore builds two- and three-star hotels to cater to more shoestring tourists who arrive on budget airlines, it must not lose the big-spending tourists. Said Dr Balakrishnan: "We must be able to attract our share of the rich and famous for which casinos may be an attraction." If they're going to lose their money, they're going to lose it our way, he quipped.

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