Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has recalled how he made a practical decision to support having casinos in Singapore 15 years ago, when his colleagues in the Cabinet were divided on the issue.
The operation of legal gambling in Singapore was limited to the government-run Singapore Pools for lotteries, and Singapore Turf Club for horse racing until a parliament session on 18 April 2005, in which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the cabinet’s decision to develop two casinos and associated hotels and malls in Marina South and Sentosa.
The government stated that the aim of the project was to boost Singapore’s tourism industry but the plans were subject to considerable debate among Singaporeans even until as recently as 2014. Several groups, such as those belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities as well as social workers, openly expressed their disapproval of the casinos.
Concerns were raised about the negative social impact of casino gambling, citing worries that the casinos could encourage more gambling and increase the risk of compulsive gambling. Activist groups argued that a casino could also lead to undesirable activities often associated with gambling, including money laundering, loan sharks or even organised crime.
Mr Lee, who was in his second year as PM, acknowledged the downsides of having integrated resorts and the concerns expressed by the public. He promised that there would be safeguards to limit the social impact of casino gambling and restrictions on the admission of locals into the casinos, such as a rule allowing family members of a patron of the casino to block him or her from entering and gambling.
The Prime Minister also announced a steep entrance fee of S$100 per entry or S$2,000 per year and a system of exclusions for all Singaporeans, which was increased to S$150 per entry or S$3,000 for an annual pass on 4 April 2019. In addition, the casinos would not be allowed to extend credit to the local population.
Despite some of his own cabinet ministers being against the plan, Mr Lee decided to go ahead with having casinos in Singapore and said, “As Prime Minister, I carry the ultimate responsibility for the decision.”
A six-month consultative period gave the opportunity for many sections of the population to voice their opposition to the casinos, including a petition that attracted tens of thousands of signatures. When Mr Lee approved the proposal after such widespread criticism, the opposition said that he had overruled consensus.
The debate over integrated resorts also brought to the public’s attention a discussion on the methods and ways government policies should be deliberated in Singapore, and whether they were effective or needed reform. This is especially because the political climate is dominated by the People’s Action Party.
Low Thia Khiang, the then-leader of the opposition Workers’ Party, warned in a parliament session: “The Government sought the opinion of the people but it does not go along with the opinion of the people and it has now made a unilateral decision. Eventually, will it turn out to be a blessing or a curse to our people? We have to wait and see.”
He added: “Under the current situation, where a party is dominant and the civil society is very weak, the people cannot sway the Government’s decision on such a matter that concerns the fate of the people.
“If the Government’s judgment is wrong, it would lead the nation and our people on to the ‘river of no return’, where the cost would be very real and very heavy.”
Mr Lee’s predecessor, Goh Chok Tong, indicated that he is happy to have had the foresight to support building casinos in Singapore in a recent Facebook post despite how divided his colleagues were. Mr Goh retired from politics after 44 years in Parliament, this June.
Mr Goh, who was Senior Minister in Mr Lee’s Cabinet at the time the casino plans were debated, said that it was his practical nature that led him to support the plans as he asserted that Singapore now has an “ace” in the form of Marina Bay Sands, a decade and a half later.
He wrote on Facebook, on Saturday (17 Oct): “What a magnificent view from the top of MBS! The Ministers were divided on whether to have casinos in Singapore to bring in tourism.
“Practical me supported having casinos as part of a larger massive resort investment and within a controlled environment for gambling. Now we have an ace in the distinctive MBS towers and ‘sky ship’.”
What a magnificent view from the top of MBS! The Ministers were divided on whether to have casinos in Singapore to bring…
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