Alexis Hooi

Calculated gambles may be worth the risk

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-22 06:42
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On Wednesday, four hotels opened on the islet of Sentosa in Singapore. It marked the first step in the rollout of one of two casinos in the city-state, as part of an "integrated resorts" plan that promises top-class attractions of theme parks, shopping malls and restaurants.

The opening of the hotels is bittersweet for me since I was initially against having the casinos in my home country, mostly on moral grounds.

Singapore authorities gave the green light to build casinos five years ago. The integrated resorts are part of plans to boost the city-state's tourism industry and create jobs as the country faces increasing competition from the region and beyond.

There were many worries that the casinos would fuel compulsive gambling and break up families, as well as encourage other vices such as loan sharking and money laundering.

The Singapore government said it will try to address these concerns in some of the best ways it knows how - by setting controls and restrictions to limit the negative effects of gambling in casinos on residents. Some measures include excluding those vulnerable to the evils of gambling from casinos and allowing families to prevent kin who are compulsive-gamblers from trying their luck at the tables. Steps to raise awareness of the dangers of gambling are also being made.

With both casinos yet to begin operations, the jury is still out on how such a model of state-sanctioned gambling will play out in the country.

But many other parties are already watching Singapore eagerly to see how the casinos turn out.

Chinese authorities may also want to pay the same amount of attention.

Lottery restrictions are already being loosened in Hainan province as part of efforts to boost the tropical island province's resort sector.

The State Council, China's Cabinet, allowed Hainan earlier this month to explore pari-mutuel sports lotteries and instant sports lotteries on large international events.

Gambling is illegal on the Chinese mainland under Chinese law. Welfare and sports lotteries were permitted two decades ago to raise funds for welfare and sports causes. A regulation was also passed last year to legalize the lottery business.

The move to develop Hainan will also give other major tourist destinations in the country and elsewhere a run for their money.

The Macao Special Administrative Region, where casinos are legal, has experienced red-hot growth in its gambling industry. After opening up the sector to foreign competitors in 2002, the region now has six licensed gaming operators, including major US players Las Vegas Sands Corp and Wynn Resorts Ltd.

Macao is now home to more than 30 casinos and has overtaken Las Vegas, the top US gaming destination, in gaming revenue. Gaming tables contributed more than 70 percent to the Macao government's revenue and more than 40,000 of about 540,000 Macao residents work in the gambling industry, official statistics show.

The Macao authorities are now planning to diversify the region's economy by developing tourism and building shopping malls, resort facilities and hotels - not unlike the Singapore model.

A visit to any of Macao's casinos is a fitting reminder of how Chinese patrons form a major part of the sector's clientele.

With more and more gamblers from the Chinese mainland flooding casinos in the region and in other countries, perhaps it is also time to consider swallowing what can be a bitter pill, by expanding more of such calculated gambles at home.