A good bet on cash, tourists and crime

March 10, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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On the surface, Resort World Sentosa is a theme park for the family… Inside, a labyrinth of quaint buildings, gathering spaces and water features manufacture a different reality.

Stanislaus Jude Chan
Asia Times Online

Vehicles with foreign license plates filling the car park is the first unfamiliar sight that greets visitors in the basement of the Singapore’s first casino, which opened nearly a month ago.

But surprises are to be expected after the casino opened its doors to its first clients during the Chinese New Year on February 14 – and to a proverbial Pandora’s box of social impacts to be seen in the coming months and years.

On the surface, Resort World Sentosa (RWS), of which the casino belongs, is a theme park for the family. The facade of a fairytale castle looms on the horizon on the way to Sentosa gateway bridge, inviting visitors to enter a world of fantasy. Inside, a labyrinth of quaint buildings, gathering spaces and water features manufacture a different reality.

“It’s very beautiful!” crooned nine-year-old Samantha Tan, who pleaded with her parents to bring her and her siblings to RWS over the weekend. “I love the clowns and the belly dancers are very pretty. But some of the shops are not open yet, so I think we want to go to the beach soon.”

From the amazing architecture to the roaming street entertainers, an atmosphere of fun and fantasy for the family fills the air in the resort, Singapore’s newest attraction, located on Sentosa Island off its southern coast.

But the directional signage in the resort, shaped in the playful motif of flowers and butterflies, betrays its economics-driven reality. At the top of the signage, like its crowning glory, a flower in full bloom points the way to the casino – hardly the most family-oriented facility.

Squirreled away on the basement level of RWS, the casino functions unobtrusively, away from prying eyes.

The unceasing chirp of voices suggests that the majority of the crowd is foreigners. With locals and Singapore permanent residents required to pay a hefty 100 Singapore dollars (US$71) gambling levy per entry – or a discounted rate of 2,000 Singapore dollars for 12 months – this comes as little surprise.

“I’m just here to check it out for myself and take some pictures, see what the hype is about. I’m not going to go into the casino though, not when I’m going to ‘lose’ 100 dollars before even placing any bets!” quips Jeremy Teo, 35.

He agrees, however, with the government’s decision to charge a gambling levy, since he feels it will “prevent many Singaporeans from losing their heads and all their money at the casino tables”.

For visitors from neighboring Johor Bahru in Malaysia, the newly opened attraction is free, and just over an hour’s drive away. The other casino in the region, in Malaysia’s Genting Highlands, is some four hours away.

“I came with some friends to have a look since we are free this weekend,” said Lee Teck Wah, a 47-year-old Malaysian, who is visiting this casino for the first time. “I have been to the Genting casino many times, and thought ‘why not come try our luck here?’ It’s been so long since I have come to Singapore anyway.”

Built at a cost of 6.59 billion Singapore dollars, RWS is one of the world’s most extensive and expensive integrated resorts, housing a host of grand facilities over 49 hectares of land.

These facilities include Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park, six hotels, a 1,600-seat theater as well as the world’s largest Marine Life Park oceanarium and a maritime museum. Supporting the attractions are a 3,500-lot car park facility, restaurants and retail stores.

In the first two days of its opening alone, the casino raked in some 40 million Singapore dollars, with more than 35,000 visitors trying their hands at the tables. News reports say the casino is expected to bring in revenues of 1.7 billion Singapore dollars in its first year, an amount handy to have during a time of recession.

A second casino in the republic, Marina Bay Sands, is due to open in April. Tourism officials hope the casinos will help Singapore achieve its target of 17 million visitors a year, generating over US$21 billion by 2015.

But from the inception of the idea for the first casino in 2004, it has met with much resistance among concerned citizens. Several groups, including the Muslim and Christian communities and social activists, expressed their disapproval of the casinos – a move that is both peculiar and noteworthy in apathetic Singapore society.

Despite public worries over the negative social impact of casino gambling as well as opening doors to undesirable activities including money laundering, prostitution and organized crime, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in April 2005: “After weighing the matter carefully, the cabinet has collectively concluded that we had no choice but to proceed with the [Integrated Resorts] IRs. As prime minister, I carry the ultimate responsibility for the decision.”

As a social safeguard to combat excessive gambling, the gambling levy was put in place, together with the setting up of the National Council on Problem Gambling and measures such as “casino exclusion”, to stop problem gamblers and those in financial difficulties from entering the casinos in Singapore.

Already, the crimes are rolling in along with the chips the casino is raking in.

A 53-year-old taxi driver, Loo Siew Wan, was charged late last month for impersonation, theft and giving false information to the police. Loo managed to enter the RWS casino – despite an exclusion order – by stealing and using his brother’s driving license, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the measures put in place by the authorities.

Loo was only caught after he allegedly tried to cheat a casino dealer on duty at a baccarat table by placing a bet of two 100 Singapore dollar chips after the result of the game had been declared.

In another case, unemployed Indonesian man Paulus Djohar was jailed for four weeks after pleading guilty to stealing a mobile phone from an undergraduate at Changi Airport, after losing all of the 1,000 Singapore dollars he had with him at the casino.

“It is inevitable. When you want to open something like a casino, you are really opening a can of worms,” said Grace Lim, 27, an advertising executive. “Hopefully, somehow, the money the casinos make and the shot in the arm for the tourism industry will be more than enough to cover the social costs. But how high a price can society afford to pay?”

In addition to objections to the casino, local and international animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, launched a campaign last year against the importation of whale sharks, described as the largest living fish species, that RWS plans to feature in its Marine Life Park oceanarium.

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/LC11Ae01.html