Friday, September 17, 2010

Singapore government starts to rein in casinos

As I've written before, the Singapore government was placing a big double bet when it decided to legalise casino gambling: that the two casinos would turn a handsome profit and that their success would not bring with it social problems such as crime and addiction.

There's no doubting that the first part of that wager has paid off, with record numbers of tourists coming to the island nation and Singapore's gaming revenue forecast to surpass that of Las Vegas by the end of next year.

While the economic benefits appear clear cut, the social impact is less positive. Since the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands casinos opened earlier this year, the police have arrested dozens of people for trying to cheat at the gaming tables and the courts have handed down swift and stiff sentences to try to deter future casino criminality.

The government has been more worried by the large number of gambling-crazy Singaporeans who have flocked to the baccarat tables and slot machines. Last week, the Casino Regulatory Authority told the casino operators to stop providing shuttle bus services to Singapore's heartland government housing estates.

This week Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister for community development, youth and sports, wrapped the casino operators on the knuckles. He reminded the operators that the government's aim was " to prevent the casinos from targeting the locals as their principal market".

In an effort to deter them from patronising the casinos, the government has imposed a levy of S$100 per day or $2,000 a year on Singaporeans and permanent residents. But Balakrishnan revealed in Parliament that there have still been more than one million visits by local residents in the few months since the casinos opened - that is more than one visit for every three residents of gambling age (over 21).

The government's plan to use the casinos to bring in big spending foreigners while sparing its citizens the negative consequences of mass market casino gambling will be very hard to pull off.

Singaporean Satirist Mr Brown suggests that the government wants to "have a casino that is there but not really there, existing in some Twilight Zone only foreigners can enter. Enjoy the money it will bring, but not the vices and social problems."

As he notes, having your cake and eating it is never easy.

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