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.

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Comments

  1. Jett Rink says

    I too feel the same way. I very much like Singapore, and have visited there four times, though each only lasting four days to a week. But almost everything seems businesslike, even to its attempts to be a “fun” destination. They want to be wealthy and prosperous but at the same time they do not want the attendant challenges that sometimes comes with a rising society (free speech? discussions and debates on issues?). Lee Kwan Yew justified his style by generally saying that his country is so small, and its population multi-cultural, that any trouble from any sector can easily affect and spread to the entire city-state.

    The shrewdness also wrenches my guts . It’s just less empathy for non-Singaporeans.

  2. A says

    Well, one does what one has to. At least Singapore’s revenue collection is efficient.

    Reminds me of our local situation: foreign tobacco, mining and construction companies (hello Koreans!) can all avail of incredibly cheap labour, amazingly lax safety standards, and special treatment from Pinoys–all while being able to make a profit without strict taxation.

    Between Singapore’s model and ours, I’d rather we have the former. :-p

  3. says

    I was trying to recall my Chinese history especially the way China closed itself to foreigners for centuries so that its people alone could enjoy the bounties of its lands. And when it started to trade with foreigners, China dictated the terms and trading was at arms’ length (only through the co hong). I think Singapore has been following the same policy — it’ll welcome foreigners but only on its own terms.

  4. browneyedgirl says

    ah well, siyempre protect your own. care nila anong mangyari sa iyo if you’re not one of their people, diba. you must admit though that bringing in these tourist attractions will surely make good money for them. and in fairness to singapore, it is a super tourist-friendly country. everything is so efficient, the mtr, shopping centers, even the people. i’ve nothing but praises for their good manners and politeness. we just travelled there with our small daughter, and strangers would help us carry her stroller up and down stairs even without us asking for their help. if we were standing on the sidewalk looking at our map, they would even approach us and ask us if they could help.

  5. dodgy says

    Well I’m Singaporean and I was never really a materialistic person. But as i grew older, I have come to realise that money is almost everything! Without money in Singapore, I just feel so…suffocated :(

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