Early Glitches for Singapore's Casinos

Singapore's two casinos have succeeded in attracting a lot of publicity and hundreds of thousands of punters in their first few weeks but there appear to be some worrying early signs.

We set out previously how the Singapore government was taking a double bet by legalizing casino gambling, wagering that the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa casinos will be able recoup their massive investments (over US$10billion in total) and that the casinos can thrive financially without leading to untoward social consequences (prostitution, organized crime, addiction, etc)

Well, according to initial soundings by some analysts and a report in today's government-controlled Straits Times, they may have a problem on both counts. Citing a number of analysts, the Straits Times claims that the bulk of the gamblers at the two casinos are Singaporean citizens and permanent residents, who have to pay a S$100 ($72) daily or S$2,000 ($1,435) annual levy to play the tables.

This represents a potential financial concern because analysts believe the local players are mostly gambling relatively small amounts. The casinos need to attract the likes of the big-betting Chinese officials and businessmen who flock to Macau, even if strict Singapore regulations have made it difficult for them to bring in these high rollers.

It also points to a possible increase in social problems down the line. The government vision for the casinos was that they would service mostly foreign players in order to limit the damage on Singaporean society - hence the rather high entry levies for locals.

That does not appear to be happening yet and if the predominance of local players persists, it will be harder for the government to justify its decision to legalize casinos that are effectively transferring Singaporeans' hard-earned savings into the hands of a Las Vegas casino magnate (MBS' ultimate owner Sheldon Adelson) and a Malaysian gambling group (Resorts World owner Genting).

Having said all that, it is still early days. The locals' fascination with the casinos may wear off and it may take time for the casinos' VIP marketing efforts to take effect. The South China Morning Post reported on May 2 that Singapore appears to be gathering some benefit by curbs on mainlanders in Macau, where Beijing, stung by widespread reports of corruption, is seeking to crack down on money laundering and gambling by government officials misusing public funds. The SCMP reported that mainland gamblers at the Marina Bay Sands said their visits to Singapore had been approved quickly and smoothly. The story quoted a Shenzhen public official as saying there are no restrictions on residents visiting the island republic. It has become difficult if not impossible for Shenzhen civil servants to visit Macau, the story said.

Stringent money-laundering laws mean Chinese officials are less worried about Singapore, the story said. It quoted gaming analyst professor Zeng Zhonglu of Macau Polytechnic Institute as saying Singapore exercises rigorous oversight of high rollers' gambling, in part to protect its reputation as an international financial center.

In the meantime, the Marina Bay Sands ran into an embarrassing series of glitches on its opening --delays, management shake-ups, staff woes, construction problems and now the latest salt to be rubbed into the wound – threats of legal action by organizers of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) Conference, the first event it hosted after opening on April 27.

Lawyers are born to litigate and they appear to be considering doing it over the fact that the 1,000 members of the bar association had to sleep without air conditioners the first night of the conference, that the phones in the bedrooms didn’t work, nor did the hot water or the toilets in the rooms and that the spa and swimming pool weren’t open

Apparently, a committee meeting had to be reconvened along a corridor because the piped music playing in the meeting room was too loud and the staff couldn’t do anything about it because the sound engineer was not around. There was also a 30-minute blackout during a key address by the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Australia.

Yap Wai Ming, chairman of the organizing committee, who obviously lost face as the man who brought this 20th annual conference of the IPBA to Singapore, told the Straits Times that MBS “should have been more honest about the progress of the IR right from the start”. He said he had never expected his conference to be used as a “stress test” for the resort.

Benjamin Bland and Yeoh Siew Hoon blog for AsianCorrespondent.com. Bland’s blog can be found at http://asiancorrespondent.com/the-asia-file and Yeoh is at http://asiancorrespondent.com/stories/?b=thetransitcafe.