SINGAPORE - The tiny but fierce island state of Singapore, which in the past
has made headlines by banning chewing gum, bungee jumping and bar-top dancing,
is getting "happening" in a hurry. The latest government plan to loosen up
Singapore's squeaky-clean image, while also attracting more foreign visitors
and investment, involves none other than building the country's first
The plan, due to be decided by the end of this year, was first developed in
1991 after some government officials expressed their desire for a slice of the
forbidden gaming fruit; according to gaming consultant Kelvin Tan, from
Manila-based investment firm Sinorex Holding, Asia's legal gambling business is
estimated to be worth US$13 billion annually, while US consultancy Innovation
Group has pegged "floating casinos" and illegal gambling at $4.2 billion a
year. The initial plan was rejected at the time, but it has recently been
revisited by Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo, who has described the
proposed casino as an "international facility, with more relaxed rules to
attract international talent, visitors and investments".
The plan has its share of critics, including Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Those voices could largely be quieted, however,
when Lee's oldest son and a strong advocate for turning Singapore into a gaming
center, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, takes over as prime minister
next Thursday. At that time, the drive for casino development could begin to
heat up. And what "chili padi" Singapore strives for it usually gets.
Back in 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia. It then fended for itself once
again when the United Kingdom announced the withdrawal of its troops in
December 1971, reversing an earlier commitment to provide security coverage to
the tiny island state. The British army at the time contributed to 20% of
Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) and employed 100,000 locals. But
Singapore survived, proving that it isn't necessarily the size of the
proverbial dog in the fight that matters. Singapore now enjoys one of the
highest per capita GDPs in the world - $24,000 according to a 2002 World
With virtually no natural resources, the Singaporean economy depends heavily on
exports from its electronics and manufacturing sectors. However, since the
2001-03 global recession and the resulting slump in the technology sector, the
government has been looking for a new game plan, one less vulnerable to the
external business cycle. While it is unlikely to give up its original designs
on becoming the high-tech and financial hub of Southeast Asia, the government
is hoping that even when people can't afford flat-screen televisions or the odd
unit trust fund they can still spare a dollar or two for the card table.
Singaporeans already spend about $340 million annually in casinos in
neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. A favorite Singaporean pastime is going on
a cruise - they reportedly spend in the vicinity of $400 million a year on
board floating casinos. According to GK Goh Research economist Song Seng Wun,
taxes from lotteries already make up a tenth of Singapore's $16.5 billion tax
revenue. Business Times estimates that a full-blown casino in Singapore could
create up to 1,000 jobs and earn $235 million to $335 million annually for its
Phrases used to describe Singapore typically include "highly developed",
"successful free market", "remarkably open", and "corruption-free environment".
Next to those words, however, one might also find the phrase "nanny state",
although, according to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who unapologetically
addressed the phrase coined by foreign journalists in his 2003 National Day
Parade rally speech, "Singaporeans like it that way."
Singapore is certainly no stranger to gaming, with state-run lotteries,
aforementioned casino cruise ships, horse racing and the occasional illicit
poker and mahjong dens. But in the same vein of double standard that allows a
man to appreciate less conservative attire on "that woman walking down the
street" but not on his wife or daughter, many Singaporeans have reacted
strongly to the idea of turning their beloved coddled country into a "village
of sin". Gambling on board floating casinos that call on Singapore's shores and
open for business in its waters apparently doesn't count.
The Singapore National Council of Churches has waged a blistering attack on the
casino idea, spearheaded by the scathing argument that "Singapore is not so
poor and desperate that we have to depend on revenues from casinos and
Among the ranks of fierce naysayers have been Singapore's Islamic scholars, and
several high-profile government officials, including former prime minister and
current Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has said he is "dead set against"
government plans to build Singapore's first resort-style casino. Weighing in on
the same side has been Prime Minister Goh, who declared in 1991 that a casino
would never exist in Singapore so long as he was leader. Significantly, next
Thursday Goh relinquishes leadership to the younger Lee, who is largely in
favor of the casino.
The division in the ranks of the People's Action Party, Singapore's leading
political party, marks a significant change in the island state's
administration - though not so much because of the difference in opinion. Even
after a decision is made on the casino, Singaporeans are likely to be debating
the issue till the cows come home.
What makes this division significant is the fact that Singapore's most
prominent politicians have agreed to disagree publicly, while Singaporeans
debate openly in chat rooms and newspapers. In a nation characterized by
differences most often settled discreetly - if not efficiently - behind
relatively closed doors, giving everyone a voice in which to settle this
particular debate may signify a loosening of the apron strings.
Outgoing Prime Minister Goh has publicly dismissed any suggestions that keeping
both himself and Senior Minister Lee in the cabinet will "cramp the style of
the new prime minister". As Goh put it, "Now, when I allow bungee jumping and
bar-top dancing, it is not because I encourage these activities. You will never
find me dangling from a bungee cord, or dancing on a bar top. But you may find
me watching a bungee jump, and perhaps one day I may go and see why dancing on
a bar top gets some people excited." One small step for the Singaporean
administration, one giant leap in loosening up.
Meanwhile, the senior Lee, 80, often dubbed the "Father of Modern Singapore",
has indicated his continued involvement in the government. But he has also
reiterated that he will not stand in the way of what he predicts will be even
faster change by a younger generation of ministers led by the younger Lee. "I
am responsible for my children's upbringing, and not my grandchildren's," he
said. The senior minister may have seen Singapore through the decades - from
newly independent, fledgling nation to having achieved developed-nation status
- but his most heroic achievement to date may be the ability to learn to let
Singapore has come a long way from being a "castoff baby", in the words of Goh.
The fact that many Singaporeans are debating their country's image and the
environmental consequences of increased development as much as the social
effect gambling may have is telling. Perhaps Singaporeans should have a little
more faith that highly regulated, responsible gaming may be a niche that
Singapore could build on better than anyone else in the region.
True, Singapore is clean, safe and relatively crime-free. But it's not the
money in need of laundering that finds Singapore attractive; people in search
of such pastimes have better places to go. And if Singapore does decide to open
its arms to embrace the world of legal gambling, perhaps so will Singaporeans.
Aileen Saw is a former manager on the risk
management advisory team of HSBC's Treasury and Capital Markets
Department. She has an accounting degree from Nanyang Technological
University in Singapore.
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