Singapore: To Game or Not to Game?


Eugene K B Tan

As part of the plan to rejuvenate the tourist and retail sectors, the government will on 18 April unveil its decision on whether casino gaming will be licensed. Asia is casino gaming's fastest growing market and Singapore seeks to exploit its excellent regulatory cachet to draw in more tourist investment and revenue. Keen to leverage on Singapore's squeaky-clean reputation, the gambling world has expressed strong interest by submitting 19 concept proposals for the planned mega-resort (some have teamed with Singapore government-linked companies).

The casino issue has generated a lot of debate even though the expressed views tend to be unhelpfully polarised along hard headed, pragmatic-economic arguments on the one hand and on values-morality lines on the other. Although there is a cynical belief that the government has already decided on the casino matter, the government has emphasised that it has been proactively gathering feedback for policy formulation and not merely to fine-tune policy implementation. Although the population is apparently evenly divided on the issue, the odds are that there will be a casino in Singapore.

The government will come out a winner regardless whether a casino is built or not. Should the government decide against the gaming component in the planned integrated resort, the feedback process would be portrayed as a triumph of the Lee Hsien Loong government's consultative approach, its decisiveness and resoluteness in policy-making, the political maturing of Singapore society, and an enhancement of the social compact through active citizenry.

If a casino is built, the decision would be promoted as a carefully calibrated, strategic decision to ensure that Singapore maintains its competitive edge and re-brands itself as a unique, lively and vibrant city. Hard decisions, involving slaying hitherto sacred cows, are not avoided even if they are unpopular. Further, Singapore's expanded gaming scene will be celebrated for its unique gaming model in which government-imposed social safeguards will ensure long-term economic benefit with minimal erosion of work ethic and social values.

The casino issue reveals the real and constant fear that Singapore may not be able to keep up with the competition. The economic outlook for 2005 is promising and the government seeks to build on the 2004's impressive 8.4 per cent growth. With economic restructuring a way of life, Singapore should reap the benefits of realigning its economy to make it more attuned, fleet-footed and adept in riding on the rigours and vagaries of a globalised world. Despite the relentless pursuit of increasing Singapore's competitiveness, the government is acutely conscious of the importance of engendering positive affective sentiments among Singaporeans. For instance, in tacitly responding to strong public sentiments, Singapore's tsunami relief and reconstruction efforts in Indonesia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka have won the government tremendous goodwill locally and internationally.

The 2005 budget aims to make Singapore a 'land of opportunity for all' and 'a society with a deep sense of community'. Finance Minister Lee Hsien Loong's budget statement, his first since he assumed the premiership in August 2004, has something for everyone, raising signals that this is an election budget. The budget continues to emphasise shared economic growth although, increasingly, the handouts are targeted at the less well-off. For the better-off, top personal income tax rate is reduced to 21 per cent and will be further reduced to 20 per cent in 2006. Having focused on the young and the elderly, the government will continue to cultivate other key constituencies, such as the workers (the focus now being on 'job re-creation'), professionals, and the minority races.

WATCHPOINT: Concerted efforts would be marshalled to ensure societal buy-in if Singapore decides to allow expanded gaming. Alternatively, if the government decides against the casino, the policy process will be touted as a landmark in overall government-people relations and will benefit the ruling party's build-up to the general elections due by 2007.


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