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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Singapore signs up to global casino club
By Will Smale
BBC News Online business reporter

Slot machines in a casino
Singapore has in-built competitive advantages for gamblers
If even the famously conservative Singaporean government is considering allowing its first ever casino, the gambling industry must be hot indeed.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced plans for a casino resort, hoping to cash in on the wildfire expansion of gambling around Asia.

The announcement reflects a cultural sea-change: whereas gambling and casinos were once widely frowned upon, today they are fast-growing, both in terms of social acceptability and industry-wide revenues.

While Las Vegas continues to see visitor numbers ever expand, and the UK government plans to greatly liberalise Britain's casino industry, Singapore is the latest country to consider placing a bet on boosting its gambling revenues.

And in terms of geographical position it is in exactly the right place, with most gambling industry analysts seeing the Far East as the biggest growth area of all, driven in the main by the Chinese. Gambling remains illegal in mainland China, sending risk-hungry punters overseas.

Big business

At present Chinese people who wish to gamble legally mainly visit Macau, the former Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast west of Hong Kong, which has long been a gambling magnet.

New hotel and casino being built in Cambodia
New casinos are being built across the Far East

Add casinos in other countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cambodia, and Asia's legal gambling industry is valued at about $14bn (7.7bn) a year. You can bet your bottom dollar that Singapore is now thinking that it would like its share of this rather lucrative pie.

And with Singapore wishing to move its economy more towards the service sector, as its manufacturing base continues to be hit by fast-growing Chinese competition, a shiny new casino could help boost tourist numbers.

"If gambling is one of the things [tourists] want to do, then maybe we should allow them to do that, find some way to do that, and as a result of that over 10 years double the [tourist] traffic volume. I think we should think about it," said Singapore's new prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Such a casino would also help Singapore recover much of the $180m a year it is estimated that Singaporeans spend each year in neighbouring Malaysian casinos.

Very popular

But with more casinos meaning more tourists and revenues for the global gambling industry, and increased tax revenues for the respective governments, what exactly is in it for the punters?

Las Vegas lights
Las Vegas wishes to attract more Asian visitors

"Essentially it is good fun," said a spokesman for UK firm Ladbrokes, which runs an online casino.

"People want to have an enjoyable time, and betting at a casino - off-line or on-line - is exciting."

The Singapore government is now seeking public feedback before making its decision in January.

Its proposal has however already received an enthusiastic response from some of the global casino heavyweights, such as US giant Las Vegas Sands, which said it would pump in as much as $2bn to operate a Singapore casino.

Possible dangers

Yet while any Singaporean casino would undoubtedly be popular, Singapore will not have things its own way - Las Vegas Sands recently opened a shiny new casino in Macau, and more foreign owned facilities are to follow in the Chinese Special Administrative Region.

While away in Las Vegas, merging MGM Mirage/Mandalay Resort and Harrah's/Caesars, both have ambitious plans to attract more visitors from the Far East.

Yet the more immediate problem for the Singaporean Government is local opposition.

Both Christian and Muslim groups have already expressed their concern, warning that any casino would fuel gambling addiction, crime and inflict social ills in what is one of Asia's safest societies.

"Singapore needs to be aware of the problems a casino will create," said a spokesman for the Gordon House Association, a UK-based organisation that offers assistance to addicted gamblers.

"While the vast majority of the population will be fine, a minority will be severely affected.

"It will be interesting to see how Singapore tackles this problem."

Meanwhile some of Singapore's avid gamblers are up in arms at plans to limit casino access to only the wealthy, with proposals to literally ban people on low incomes.

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