Singapore Places its Bets is a book that is required reading for all stakeholders in the remaking of Singapore. The book has particular resonance and importance for the shareholders of Genting Singapore PLC and Las Vegas Sands Corporation – the owners of the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands integrated resorts respectively.
Author Derek da Cunha provides a major account of the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary Singapore society. Written in a manner that is crisp, punchy, and finely balanced, Derek takes the reader through some of the transformative events that have shaped, and continue to shape, the most dynamically evolving country in Southeast Asia.
A central theme of the book is the introduction of casino gambling in Singapore’s densely populated society. For four decades the conservative People’s Action Party government had deliberately put at arms length the very notion of establishing casinos in Singapore. In 2005 that policy was overturned. Five years later, two mammoth multi-billion dollar casino resorts – Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands -- were to open in Singapore. These casinos brought to a country, many of whose citizens were already known to embrace a culture of gambling, the highest form of that vice. The decision to have two major casino resorts – euphemistically dubbed by the government as “integrated resorts” – proved highly controversial.
The economic case for having the resorts was well made out by both the government and lobbyists for the casino industry. The two resorts are expected to generate up to 1% to Singapore’s gross domestic product. Both would create thousands of jobs and would have a spillover effect to other parts of the economy. However, as Derek examines in detail, the negative social impact of casino gambling in a heavily populated conurbation was given less rigorous examination. Indeed, as he points out, no social impact study was commissioned by the government to determine the fallout from casinos within a short distance from many Singaporeans’ places of work or residence. The lack of a government-commissioned study by a panel of international experts to examine the social fallout contrasted markedly with the way the government had three decades earlier dealt with the issue of the introduction of a mass rapid transit (MRT) system to Singapore. In the case of the MRT, two panels of experts – one supporting an all-rail MRT and another advocating an all-bus system – provided a rigorous debate that was useful in keeping the public apprised of all sides of the argument and allowing policy-makers to make an informed decision.
On the other hand, in the case of the casinos, it was a mere fourteen months between the first mention of the possibility of their establishment in Singapore and the government decision to proceed with having two. That, as Derek notes, raised eyebrows even in casino industry circles. For instance, the Las Vegas Business Press, observed, with apparent understatement: “The speed with which the Singapore government has moved from opening up the gambling debate to opening up the casino-bidding process was unusual compared to other markets, which takes years to evolve…”
The social impact of casinos in densely populated Singapore is given extensive treatment in this book, with examples and anecdotes drawn from a number of jurisdictions, such as Macau, Russia and the United States. Increased crime, broken families and suicides will inevitably follow in the wake of Singapore’s establishment of casinos, even as the government has put in place a slew of safeguards to mitigate such negative social consequences. In many instances, the social consequences of casino gambling are often not visible beyond those immediately affected, their family, friends and work colleagues.
The prospect of the two casino resorts being financial success stories is also given considerable examination. It is noted that the casino resort that opens first – in this instance, Resorts World Sentosa -- has an important first mover advantage, at least in its first year of operations. The reasons for this are set out in detail in the book. After the first full year of operations, the resort which has the advantage of location – Marina Bay Sands – is likely to do relatively better.
Singapore Places its Bets also looks at the heavy influx of foreign nationals into Singapore since 2005. It examines how that influx, compressed within the space of a few years, has begun to change the demographic landscape of the country with significant economic, political and social consequences. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals (some proportion of which has taken up permanent residence, while others citizenship) has largely been effected to attain the twin objectives of fuelling economic growth and to address the issue of a fast ageing population. As large numbers of immigrants – mostly dubbed “foreign talent – have arrived on Singapore’s shores, some born-and-bred Singaporeans have decided to leave and seek their livelihoods and happiness elsewhere. The book examines in detail this outflow, even if it is dwarfed by the inflow, and the varied motivations behind it.
In the ultimate analysis, in placing its bets on casinos, foreign talent and an overall remaking of the city-state, Singapore has demonstrated boldness in moving in lockstep with trends in an economically hyper-competitive globalised world. As a city-state, Singapore cannot do otherwise. But as is the nature of a bet, it is ultimately a zero-sum game. Consequently, the bets placed by Singapore will payoff handsomely for some stakeholders. Others, however, will have to settle with coming out at the losing end or, at best, breaking even.
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