Singapore loosens moral leash with casino legalization - Sunday 12th of June 2005

Long known for its strict social controls, the city state of Singapore is now planning to develop casinos. Amid fierce competition among Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to woo investment and attract tourists, the nation is putting potential economic gains ahead of other considerations.

Casinos are to be built in two areas where the Singaporean government is developing resort complexes.

The two locations are Bay Front along Marina Bay, which is close to the business district, and Sentosa Island, a popular tourist destination. The casino at Bay Front will be built on 12.2 hectares of land, with the other to cover 47 hectares.

The government plans to select developers this year and have the casinos operational by 2009. Its total investment in the casinos has been estimated at between 4 billion Singapore dollars (U.S.2.4 billion dollars) and 7 billion Singapore dollars.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the government's plan to legalize casinos in parliament on April 18. "I'll take all responsibility" for the project, he said.

Since March last year, when the government announced it would discuss the possibility of legalizing casinos, the issue has been a controversial topic among the public. Some citizens groups and Muslim organizations vehemently oppose the plan, saying it will increase the number of gambling addicts.

In Singapore, a multicultural and multireligious society, the government has traditionally maintained tight control on everything, including chewing gum.

Lee, who assumed office in August 2004, has in his Cabinet two former prime ministers--Lee Kuan Yew, his father, who serves as advisory minister, and Goh Chok Tong, a senior minister.

Giving the go-ahead to the establishment of casinos is a policy turnaround that gives the impression of a generational change.

The Asian tourism market has expanded in line with economic development. In particular, there has been a huge jump in the number of tourists from China and India.

Singapore hopes to boost tourism revenue to 30 billion Singapore dollars in 2015--a threefold rise on the current amount.

Tourism is an important contributor to the national economy, making up 3 percent to 4 percent of Singapore's gross domestic product. In 2004, 8 million people visited Singapore after the country recovered from the 2003 SARS scare.

However, Singapore is known to many people only for its Merlion statue and does not have beautiful beaches or special products. The food and shopping are relatively expensive compared with other Asian countries, making it somewhat unattractive as a travel destination.

Lee appealed to the public that "Singapore must reform, otherwise the country will lag behind [in tourism]" as other Asian countries are competing over attractions, with Hong Kong set to have a Disneyland theme park open this year.

Attracting Chinese visitors is especially important for Singapore's tourism strategy.

Xenia Teo, a 24-year-old company employee in Singapore, said, "This city is boring, so I welcome casinos."

The majority of customers at Genting Highland casino in nearby Malaysia are from Singapore. As a result, locals as well as tourists are likely to patronize Singapore's planned casinos.

Nevertheless, the Singaporean government plans to set restrictions on the use of the casinos. For example, Singaporeans will have to pay 100 Singapore dollars every time they play in the casino and an annual membership fee of 2,000 Singapore dollars.

Suhaimi bin Sainy, a 26-year-old Muslim researcher, said he agreed with the restrictions. "Casinos could cause social problems," he said.

On the other hand, the government plans to win the public over by developing large-scale resorts with an international conference hall, theme park and hotel.

Since last year, the government has been collecting ideas from both home and abroad about casino development. An alliance between a Malaysian casino operator and Universal Studios, which runs a theme park in Osaka, has attracted close attention.

Other Asian countries are watching Singapore's attempt to establish casinos in parallel with the creation of a special department to deal with casino-related crime, considering the effects on society.


Chinese key customers


Casinos are legal in Cambodia, where many people from China and ethnic Chinese from around Asia are the main customers, as well as in Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea.

In Macau, more than 70 percent of government tax revenue is from 15 casinos in the territory. The customers are mainly from China and Hong Kong.

South Korea, which introduced casinos in the 1960s, did so with the goal of gaining foreign currency. Of the 14 casinos in the country, 13 are exclusively for foreign tourists, mainly Japanese, but the number of Chinese tourists has been increasing lately.

Genting Highland in Malaysia attracts many tourists from China and local Chinese because Muslims consider gambling a sin.

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