The thinker: Not a Gambling man

February 22, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Thomas Hogue
Jarkarta Globe

AFP photo: Inside the Resort World Sentosa

“In every bet, there is a fool and a thief,” says an anonymous proverb.

On Thursday morning last week, the crowd at Singapore’s new casino had dwindled to several hundred, down from the initial crush of thousands over the Chinese New Year holiday weekend.

Outside, workers were putting the finishing touches on what is billed as an open gaming and family-fun resort — although much of it won’t be fully functional for two or three more months.

Inside, at 8:30 a.m., more than half the tables and slot machines were closed off behind red velvet ropes, and clustered around the tables with dealers behind them, early-bird or overnight gamblers were intent on their games of blackjack, pontoon, baccarat, Texas hold ’em and roulette.

Occasionally, a bettor would shout “Ace!” as the dealer threw down a card. This trick did not once produce the desired effect, as far as I could see.

All across the casino, meanwhile, scenes from every gambling movie ever made were recreated: five men slept on couches set around a large-screen TV, worn out from winning or losing; people slumped on the stools in front of slot machines, cigarettes dangling from their mouths; an elderly man in a wheelchair attended to by a couple of attractive young “nurses,” his fingers curled by arthritis and mouth turned down by a sour disposition, quickly lost at least 1,000 Singapore dollars at the blackjack table; at another table an elderly “uncle” gave gambling advice in Mandarin to a sharply dressed young man and his date; and confidently sauntering through the crowd were three large men, tattooed legs showing below their against-the-dress-code shorts, possibly escapees from a real-life Hong Kong version of “The Sopranos.”

I had thought at first that I might try my fortune with a flutter or two, but after watching these and other patrons, I kept my money in my pocket.

No matter how Singapore wants to pitch its trust in the gambling bug as a cure for its flagging tourism industry, there is something dirty about taking money from people so willing to throw it away, and I decided I wanted no part of it.

On my mind, too, was the news I had read the night before about an Indonesian man caught at Changi Airport trying to steal a cellphone after losing all the money he had with him, just 1,000 Singapore dollars ($700), at the casino.

Another seven people have also fallen foul of the law since the weekend’s opening: two Mongolians for trying to get one of them in on a false passport, and five Singaporeans and permanent residents who tried to sneak into the casino without paying the hefty levy required of them.

This 100 Singapore dollar levy — an admission from the country that promoting games of chance maybe isn’t such a good idea after all — will supposedly keep out citizens and others living there who can’t afford to gamble.

But if an entry fee is needed to protect Singaporeans and permanent residents from foolishly risking money they don’t have, what’s to protect the Chinese, Indonesians, Malaysians and other Asians that Singapore hopes to lure with promises of easy riches?

If Singapore really wanted to keep people out of the casino who can’t afford to lose, the levy would be much higher and it would apply to everyone, citizen or foreigner.

Singapore can’t do that, though, because the business of gambling runs on the basis of taking money from the suckers and losers too weak or too stupid to resist a game where the house always wins in the end.

Blame, of course, falls to the gamblers as well, but this is not a business responsible governments should be promoting — no matter what sleight of hand tries to present it as just one element of a family entertainment center.

This casino, operated by a unit of a Malaysian gaming company, and the one scheduled to open later this year under the direction of Las Vegas Sands, are efforts to take money from the gullible and those unlearned in mathematics and probability. And while the establishments may bring Singapore some measure of wealth, whatever gains made will surely be accompanied by trouble of greater sorts than that seen in just the first few days of operation.

If gambling is a potential addiction — as the Web site for Resorts World Sentosa makes clear — then the only sure way to win is not to play, and that goes for nations as well as individuals.