Friday, June 12, 2009

The desperate and the curious look to Singapore's new casinos

With foreign labourers working 24 hours a day in a race to finish the construction of Singapore's first-ever casinos by the end of the year, people are increasingly hopeful that the arrival of mass-market gambling will provide a big boost to the flagging economy.

It's not just the economists who are getting excited. Many ordinary Singaporeans are hoping to find a job in one of the two casino resorts. Below is the text of an article on the subject that I wrote back in March. It never saw the light of day for various reasons but, as it is interesting and still relevant, I am publishing it now:

They came in their thousands, armed with copies of their CVs and name cards: the old, the young, the unemployed and those who feared they were about to lose their job.

The global economic crisis has hit trade-dependent Singapore hard and with thousands of workers made redundant already, job-seekers flocked to Southeast Asia’s biggest careers fair back in March in the hope of landing a sought-after position in one of the city-state’s two new casinos.

While there were hundreds of engineering, healthcare and insurance jobs on offer, the main draw for many of the 400,000 people who visited the Career 2009 exhibition was the chance to become a croupier or cage cashier at the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa casinos.

“It’s the first time there’s ever been a casino in Singapore so I’m very excited,” said Eng Choo Eng, a diminutive 57-year-old tai chi coach who was hoping to get a job as a blackjack dealer. “Being a dealer requires a lot of technique and tactility and I think that, with my tai chi, I have the right skills.”

Concerned about the island-nation’s over-reliance on exports, the Singaporean government legalised casino gambling in 2005 as part of a broader drive to diversify the economy.

The plan is to turn the straight-laced city-state into the Monaco of the east, with its own Formula One road-race, a growing wealth management industry and two multi-billion dollar casinos, which will begin opening from the end of this year.

The two sprawling casinos – or “integrated resorts” as the government rather euphemistically calls them - will incorporate hotels, theme parks and museums and they need to hire thousands of people as they prepare to open their doors. From the desperate to the curious, there was no shortage of takers at the job fair.

Having queuing up several hours before the doors of the cavernous Suntec convention centre opened, frenetic job seekers used every available inch of floor and wall space to fill out their application forms.

Resorts World, which is looking to hire 400 croupiers and 400 non-casino staff, received more than 1,000 applications in the first 90 minutes alone. By the end of the first day, 5,000 people had applied.

While the Singaporean government, which has been controlled by the People’s Action Party since independence from Britain in 1965, projects an image of the city-state as highly-developed and super-efficient, the country’s rapid economic development has, in reality, been rather uneven.

Unlike poorer neighbours such as Thailand and China, Singapore still has no unemployment insurance scheme.

So, with Singapore facing the worst recession in its history – founding father and current “minister mentor” Lee Kwan Yew warned that the economy could contract by 8pc this year – the need to find work is a pressing one, especially for those who have mortgages to pay and families to feed.

Jimmy Christanthio, a 33-year-old product manager, has worked at Motorola, the ailing US mobile phone maker, for 13 years but was recently told he is being made redundant as part of a restructuring drive. “I want to stay in the same line of work but the telecoms sector is really struggling so I’ll probably look to new avenues like the casino resorts,” he said. “These are challenging times and I need a job so I’m keeping an open mind.”

It’s a similar story for 29-year-old Kelvin Lim, who found himself unemployed after the shipping company he worked for closed down. “Everyone’s looking to Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World and I’ve applied for various roles on the corporate side of the business,” he noted.

As well as the out-of-work professionals eyeing management roles at the casinos, there were thousands of job hunters hoping to land entry-level positions as croupiers or waiters. Among them were many maids and restaurant workers from the Philippines and China who have lost their jobs.

However, those without strong CVs are likely to be disappointed. Both Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World have declared that they will give preference to Singaporean citizens, in line with the government’s recent move to subsidise employers who hire local workers.

The scores of curious old folks from Singapore’s suburban heartlands who eagerly applied for casino jobs should fare better. Singapore has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world and both casino operators have insisted that there is no upper age limit for recruitment.

Grenville Danker, a retired 75-year-old English teacher of Eurasian stock, was confident that his application would be treated fairly. “I like keeping busy and I’m hoping to get a position as an educational officer or tour host at the casinos,” he said.

But Eng, the 57-year-old tai chi teacher, was not so convinced. “My worry is that whatever they say they’ll aim for youth over experience,” she added ruefully. “But I’m very flexible about work so I’m sure I’ll be ok whatever happens.”

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