Distance and time constitute deterrence

To appreciate fully the negative consequences of casinos on a population, some comparative perspective may be needed. It may not dawn on many people that Genting Highlands and Macau have one thing in common. No, one is not referring to their casinos. That is too obvious. Rather, it is a logistical commonality. Genting Highlands, nestled atop a mountain ridge in the Malaysian state of Pahang, is about one hour‘s drive along a winding and somewhat treacherous road (where accidents are not infrequent) from the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Macau is about one hour by jetfoil from Hong Kong‘s main ferry terminal at Shun Tak Centre, after which Hong Kong residents and other visitors have to pass through Macau customs and immigration.

What is the significance of this common logistical aspect? Distance and time constitute an inherent deterrence to people visiting the casinos at those two places too frequently. That was probably well understood by the Malaysian government when a few decades ago it allowed a casino to be developed in a part of the country not easily accessible to the general population.

Singapore will have no logistical deterrence to Singaporeans wanting to visit the casinos at Marina Bay and Sentosa. A S$100 entrance fee for each 24-hour visit (or a flat S$2,000 annually) that the Government will compel the casino operators to levy on Singaporeans and permanent residents to discourage them from visiting the casinos, would be a deterrence to some but not to others. For S$100, some gamblers would likely compute that amount as part of their gambling stake when they visit the casinos. In other words, they would need to wager an amount that gives them a chance to recoup their S$100 and at least a bit more, to make their visit worthwhile. Opponents of the casinos had argued for a S$300 or S$400 a day (or S$5,000 a year) levy. That, they felt, would carry greater deterrent value and make people think several times before deciding to set foot in the gaming halls.

The Government, however, had to strike a fine balance between imposing a disincentive to Singapore residents frequenting the casinos on the one hand, and not totally alienating the casino operators on the other. The quantum of the entrance levy it came up with constituted what it felt was that fine balance. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan – who had been at the forefront of the IR debate – had also said in December 2004 that a higher entrance levy would not deter chronic gamblers “because they [could] easily go to Batam instead, where a round trip‘s travelling expenses are less than $50”. It is perhaps ironic that in the same year – 2005 – in which the Singapore Government moved to legalise casino gambling in the city-state, the Indonesian government moved to close the illegal casinos on Batam island.

The levy on Singaporeans/PRs was the Government‘s attempt to discourage those who already had little means from squandering it gambling and forestalling destitution and/or bankruptcy. There is therefore a sound basis for the levy and its quantum. The levy would probably deter most impulse gamblers, and, to that extent, it would achieve part of its purpose. The levy was also viewed as the Government‘s attempt to placate casino opponents. As it stands, however, the actual deterrent value of the levy is uncertain, and would not be known until some time after the integrated resorts are operational. Nonetheless, in conversations with Singaporeans throughout 2008 and much of 2009, in response to the author‘s question as to whether they would pay the S$100 levy to enter a gaming hall, most responded in the negative but said they would still visit and patronise facilities and attractions in the rest of the IRs. Some said that without the levy they would probably visit the gaming halls occasionally. All this, of course, represents an unscientific sample of opinion.

To place the issue of distance or time as deterrence in context for the reader, some historical background is necessary. Prior to the Beijing government in 2003 easing up on the number of mainland Chinese allowed to visit Macau, Hong Kongers had for decades made up the vast bulk of gamblers visiting the former Portuguese enclave (which did not have a critical mass of its own population to support its casinos). Most Hong Kongers would make the trip to Macau during weekends and public holidays simply because the Hong Kong work ethic is such that many people keep long work hours. For many Hong Kongers, a typical work day runs from 9 am to 8 pm (sometimes ending later). Consequently, despite their proclivity for gambling, lack of time and the sheer distance to the gaming tables in Macau have not made it convenient for many Hong Kong residents to visit Macau as often as they would like. (Housewives and retirees however have the luxury of visiting Macau‘s casinos at any time of their choosing, that is if they have sufficient gambling capital to start off.) Paradoxically, these visits, spaced out in such a manner, are actually beneficial to both the Macau casino operators and Hong Kong gamblers. They ensure that many high-rolling Hong Kong gamblers are not wiped out by sustained gambling on a virtually daily basis. Sustained gambling by individuals on a daily basis would likely result in the Macau casinos, in short order, losing the geese which laid the golden eggs.

Theoretically, having casinos in proximity to population centres would provide considerable temptation to frequent the casinos for both those with a gambling inclination and those who are bored and require some excitement to alleviate their boredom. The influence of the geographical location of a casino on an individual‘s behaviour towards gambling has been borne out by a number of studies. One American study, involving a survey of 2,631 adults, and quoted in the journal Science Daily in June 2005, noted:

A casino within 10 miles [16 kilometres] of home has a significant effect on problem gambling and is associated with a 90 percent increase in the odds of being a pathological or problem gambler.
The reason for the increase … is that the availability of an attractive gambling opportunity can lead to gambling pathology in some people who would otherwise not develop it.

These observations are in direct contrast to those made in May 2005 in a letter to The Straits Times by the director of the National Responsible Gambling Programme in South Africa. Among other things, he said:

What our research in South Africa shows is that experience there is broadly in line with that of other jurisdictions where casino gambling has been legalised. We found that less than 1 percent of those who gamble develop an addiction-like problem, and about 5 percent exhibit less severe problems with excessive gambling at some time in their lives.

Our research also confirms what has been found in several jurisdictions in North America and New Zealand. We found that problem-gambling numbers do not increase, and may even decrease if the introduction of casinos is accompanied by the provision of substantial services to prevent problem gambling. These include a vigorous public-awareness programme about the dangers of gambling and how to avoid them.

Here are two different views. Both may have their merits. In other words, the thrust of the arguments in both are not mutually exclusive. What may be missing in all this is the extent to which ethnicity is a determinant of the likelihood of whether a person takes to gambling more than others, and whether he/she becomes addicted to it. This issue will be examined in detail in Chapter 3.


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