Singapore’s Integrated Resorts: some thoughts on gambling and casinos

Last November, while taking a “duck tour” around Singapore’s Marina Bay, the Filipino tour guide, Chris, pointed to three side-by-side structures still under construction. He explained that they were the hotels within the Marina Bay Sands Resort, the second integrated resort in Singapore, the first being the Resorts World in Sentosa. The soft launch of the four hotels in Resorts World took place last January 20. The Universal Studios theme park is expected to open this summer. Marina Bay Sands is scheduled to open early this year as well.

casaveneracion.com Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Resort

casaveneracion.com Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Resort

Everything seems to be time-coordinated. The opening of these integrated resorts at the start of the new decade seems to be in consonance with the launch of a new Southeast Asia tourism campaign with the slogan “Southeast Asia: feel the warmth.” Centered around an interactive website at SoutheastAsia.org, the participating countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

But this article isn’t about the tourism campaign. This is about gambling and casinos. If the term “integrated resort” in the first paragraph didn’t catch your attention, well, it is more than a phrase – it is a new culture, a new business strategy, a new economic solution and, possibly, an initiation of a new values system.

In Singapore, an integrated resort, or IR, is a euphemism for a casino-based vacation resort with amenities that include hotels, shopping malls, convention centers, theaters, parks and museums.

A short history (from “Casino Control Act” by Lim, Puay Ling as published in the Singapore Infopedia):

Gambling in Singapore is by large illegal apart from a few authorized activities managed by Singapore Turf Club and Singapore Pools. There are four statutes in Singapore that govern gaming: Common Gaming Houses Act, the Betting Act, the Private Lotteries Act, and the Betting and Sweepstake Duties Act. Broadly, these Acts prohibit gaming activities, betting and lotteries in common gaming houses or public lotteries, unless exemptions were given or permits had been sought.

Sounds much like the policy in the Philippines, doesn’t it? Gambling is illegal except for the PAGCOR-operated casinos and the PCSO-operated sweepstakes and lotto.

… For many years, the government has resisted calls to set up casinos in Singapore. On 18 April 2005, the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the Cabinet’s decision to develop two IRs at Marina Bayfront and Sentosa…. In his speech, PM Lee explained the change in the government’s long standing policy with regards to casinos, due to concern with losing competitiveness in economy and tourism to other cosmopolitan cities.

Of course, the decision was met with some resistance, especially from the Muslim and Christian communities. Although the business and economic agenda seemed viable (the IRs would mean tremendous streams of revenues for the government as well as jobs for Singaporeans), gambling has long been associated with the moral breakdown of the fibers of society. Gambling can turn into an addiction and has been known to destroy families. Moreover, gambling often breeds organized crime.

In a nation with such low crime rate, building casino-based resorts sounded like inviting trouble. But it seemed that the perceived benefits far outweighed the disadvantages. Statistics don’t lie – Hong Kong, Macau and even Malaysia (Genting Highlands is a casino-based resort) all make good money by luring tourists to their casinos, so why not Singapore? To quell the resistance, the Singaporean government enacted laws restricting access to the casinos by Singaporean nationals and permanent residents. The casinos are off-limits unless a Singaporean is prepared to pay S$100 for a day pass or a S$2000 annual membership fee.

The clear implication is simply this: The Singaporean government wants the revenue, it has created guidelines to protect its citizens and residents from the “evils” of gambling, it is inviting the rest of the world to visit Singapore and gamble in the casinos and it really doesn’t care if the foreign tourists lose their life savings on the Black Jack tables and put a bullet through their heads or jump off the 50th floor of some hotel afterward. Bankrupt tourists won’t affect Singapore’s economy and viability as a major tourist attraction.

It’s a protectionist attitude, all right. It is the same thought behind Singapore’s cigarette policy. Smoking in Singapore is prohibitively expensive BUT once you are on your way out, Singapore sells cigarettes at amazing duty-free prices. In short, the government says, “We don’t care if you smoke; just don’t do it here. We even encourage you to buy cigarettes; just don’t light them up here.”

It might sound totally Machiavellian and devious to the rest of the world but a government’s concern, first and foremost, is its own citizens. It isn’t responsible for the moral values and financial priorities of visiting tourists. In that light, things make sense. The Singaporean government is simply doing what it is supposed to do – protect its nation and its people.

Still, from a “global community” perspective, I feel uncomfortable with such a shrewd maneuver. It’s not something I can put a name to – it’s just something that wrenches at my guts.