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Casinos: Time to up your ante – no more jaded musicals or non-marquee stars, please

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Moshe Safdie is a busy man indeed. After designing Changi Airport’s Jewel terminal, the world-renowned Israeli-Canadian architect who was also responsible for the three Marina Bay Sands spaceship towers will be flying and out of Singapore for the forthcoming fourth tower.

Meanwhile, as crazy but not so rich Singaporeans spend their weekends trudging through Changi Airport to take in the world’s highest indoor waterfall and whatever can be offered by the air-conditioned ecosphere of Jewel, the Uncles and Aunties with still fairly intact and substantial savings from their CPF and en-bloc windfalls will not welcome the increase in the casino 24-hour daily levy from $100 to $150 and the annual levy from $2,000 to$3,000. They might have to abandon their grandchildren and make their way to Genting Highlands to try their luck at the machines or the blackjack table. From one Genting casino in Sentosa to yet another. The largely expatriate English-educated crowd will stay in MBS and perhaps jet to Australia on long weekends. Or they will hit hospitable Manila – where people actually speak good English and are pleasant – to throw their dice or play five-card poker.

And by 2020 thereafter, high-rollers or other gamblers will have other attractive choices, beyond the limited ones in Cambodia and Vietnam. Besides Malaysia, Macau and the Philippines, Japan is also opening up, as it sets down certain measures, including limiting the number of visits, to protect its citizens.

The Singapore government has allowed Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands each an extra 15,000 sq m of gaming area. Subject to payment of additional land costs, RWS and MBS may expand their casino areas by 2,000 sq m and 500 sq m respectively. In return, from March 2022, the two IRs will have to pay higher casino tax rates under a new tiered structure.

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Few people should object to the prospect of more future revenue for the social good, especially to the tune of $9 billion. The early objection to the idea of having casinos which was shared by a tearful former NTUC secretary-general Lim Boon Heng at a press conference in 2011 seemed to have been eased by the fact that the casinos have not brought about greater addiction to gambling.

Nearly seven years from the casinos’ introduction, the pathological and problem gambling rate among Singaporeans and permanent residents was 0.9 per cent shown in a 2017 survey done by the National Council on Problem Gambling. It inched up from 0.7 per cent in the 2014 survey, but the change was not significant. The survey is done every three years to find out the extent and pattern of gambling here.

The problem has been manageable. Perhaps the levy helped, though a Straits Times report said the gambling addiction rates have already been falling since the first survey was done in 2005 – way before the casinos opened. A gambling addict is generally one who gambles beyond his means and becomes a problem for his family.

In the 2005 study, the addiction rate was 4.1 per cent and this fell to 2.9 per cent in the 2008 survey and to 2.6 per cent in the 2011 study.

So far so good. Whether gamblers would still fly over to other nearby spots to satisfy their addiction would be another matter.

The IRs will also provide more employment opportunities. RWS expects to add 2,800 new jobs, while MBS could hire 1,500 to 1,800 more staff with the expansion.

Question is: will Singaporeans respond? The F and B industry has a perennial problem of getting workers. We know that the  services sector’s dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) – the proportion of foreigners a firm is allowed to hire – will be lowered from 40 per cent to 38 per cent next year, and then to 35 per cent by 2021. The sector’s S Pass sub-DRC will also be cut from 15 per cent to 13 per cent and then to 10 per cent over the next two years. It will be a tight labour market. According to hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, “The reality is that the industry doesn’t chime with the lifestyle choices of Singaporeans, who don’t want to work evenings, weekends or special occasions.”

So how, Singaporeans?

As for the IRs themselves, their reality is that they have not been able to attract marquee stars to set up shop in their establishments. The ones which will truly make Singapore a world-class entertainment venue and will, in turn, entice others to include the city in their super tours, any genre, on a regular basis.

MBS should get a mega star like Michael Buble, Celine Dion or Sher (or even Russell Peters) for three to six months gigs. RWS can try any of the Hongkong stars.

As an excellent analysis piece by Daniel Cheng puts it in The Straits Times on Saturday (April 20): “The facades are beginning to look a shade tired and new attractions have all dried up. The last new ride in Universal Studios Singapore was the Puss In Boots roller coaster a distant four years ago.

“The theatre in MBS in recent months has begun to recycle musicals, while original productions in RWS like Voyage De La Vie have arguably been more misses than hits.”

I can’t agree more. We should not be short-changed by the casino operators.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

 

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