Singapore tries luring foreigners as casino opens

Alex Kennedy
Associated Press

Foreigners and a few Singaporeans streamed to card and dice tables and slot machines Sunday at 12:18 p.m. — the lucky minute when tightly controlled Singapore opened its first casino.

The city-state is counting on the Resorts World Sentosa casino and another opening in May to lure tourists and expatriates without besmirching Singapore’s hard-earned reputation as corruption-free.

The line for foreigners was long and deep at the midday opening, while few Singaporeans and permanent residents appeared eager to pay the fee required of them to enter. Chinese consider eight a lucky number because it sounds like prosper or wealth in the Mandarin dialect.

The casino is part of Resorts World Sentosa, built by Malaysia’s Genting Bhd for 6.6 billion Singapore dollars ($4.7 billion) on an island just off Singapore’s coast.

The government expects the two casino-resorts — Las Vegas Sands opens its Marina Bay Sands in May — to increase the country’s gross domestic product growth by up to 1 percentage point and add 35,000 jobs.

Singapore also is trying to broaden its tourism appeal, part of a gradual shift toward a services-based economy and away from labor-intensive manufacturing that its poorer Asian neighbors can do more cheaply.

“They recognize they have to evolve,” said David Cohen, an analyst with consultancy Action Economics in Singapore. “Some of their traditional industries are no longer going to be competitive as Singapore climbs the ladder into a higher income, higher cost location.”

Genting Chairman Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay said he expects 13 million visitors to Resorts World this year — 60 percent foreign and 40 percent Singaporean. He declined to say how many visitors he expected at the casino alone.

The casino proposal hit stiff public resistance when it was debated in 2005 as opponents worried about gambling-related problems such as loan-sharking and bankruptcy and a possible undermining of the country’s values of discipline and hard work.

The government decided to go ahead with the projects for their economic benefit while implementing measures to minimize social harm.

All Singaporeans and permanent residents must pay SG$100 a day or SG$2,000 a year to enter a casino, while foreigners are not charged. More than 34,000 residents — including those on welfare, in bankruptcy, with criminal records or flagged by family members — are barred from the casinos.

“It’s a way to mitigate and ameliorate, to have the goodness without all the badness,” said Lim Hock San, chairman of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Singapore, an island of 5 million people, has gained notice in the past for its ban on chewing gum sales, caning sentences for minor crimes such as vandalism and executions of drug smugglers.

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