Yawning Bread. May 2006

Opposition parties' poor bet


    

 

 

Las Vegas Sands won the bid for the first "integrated resort", it was announced yesterday (26 May 2006). Apparently, its strong emphasis on attracting and providing for meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE), together with its architectural design, clinched the deal.


Night view. Artist's impression provided by Las Vegas Sands

 
Sands' 2 casinos in Macau were not thought to have impaired its bid. They might in fact have strengthened its case. The review committee thought that these earlier projects gave Sands a better understanding of the Chinese market, and would also provide an unparalleled reach when wooing travellers over.

 
 Day view

 

The winning proposal has 3 low-rise domes on the bayfront one each for entertainment, the casino and conventions, with 50-storey towers behind, containing 2,500 hotel rooms. Atop the towers will be a 1-hectare public garden offering panoramic views of the city.

It is expected to cost S$3.85 billion to build the facility. Add in the S$1.2 billion for the land, and the total investment will exceed S$5 billion. It should be ready by 2009.

 

Blogger kiweto has pointed out that the Sky Garden in Sands' design may conflict with the proposed ferris wheel, the Singapore Flyer. See here.

 

Other competing tenders were from MGM Mirage, Harrah's Entertainment and Genting International.

Serious bidding for the second "integrated resort" with casino, on Sentosa Island, now begins. The decision for this one is expected before the end of the year.

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This essay, however, is not about which is the better bid, for this kind of question should be and was left to the experts. In any case, whatever decision is made is no guarantee of commercial success. A lot of hard work lies ahead to make it so. This essay is partly about the still unresolved question of whether we should have casinos at all, but more than that, it's about the opposition parties.

It may strike you as strange that I say the question is unresolved, for surely a decision was taken over a year ago to go ahead, and now, the first of two awards have been made. Yes, but these were government decisions. Just because the government has decided does not automatically mean that everybody accepts the decision.

In fact, it was one of issues that came up recently during the general elections when opposition candidates spoke in unguarded moments. I think the Workers' Party speeches generally avoided the subject, but I did overhear at least one candidate mention the casino in informal conversation with ordinary folks. He appeared to take an anti-casino stand, which was consistent with the party's official position.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance and Singapore Democratic Party candidates often spoke more freely, and if my memory serves me well, there was at least one rally where a candidate (I can't recall who exactly) mentioned casinos as another example of how the PAP government was "bankrupt" of ideas as to how to improve the economy.

I disagree, and I think the opposition parties are short-sighted to try to win votes through populism. If any reader wishes to accuse me of being pro-PAP on this point, go ahead. I will gladly wear PAP colours over this issue.

I will not rehash the big debate Singapore had in 2004 and early 2005 over the principle of whether to license any casinos or not. I'll just recapitulate some bullet points. To be against the idea to allow casinos into Singapore, you have to hold at least one of these 3 views:

1 Casinos will bring no significant economic benefit.
 
2 a Casinos will bring significant economic benefit, but even larger social costs, which cannot be managed, and
b Despite casinos sprouting in Macau, and perhaps neighbouring countries, together with cheap airfares, and even with the prospect of online gambling taking off, Singaporeans will not make use of these opportunities to gamble. That is to say, we won't be bearing increased social costs so long as we keep casinos out of Singapore.
 
3 a Gambling is immoral, and
b The government should not approve any project that I and some other Singaporeans consider immoral.

 
Reason no.1 is essentially irrational. By any accepted method of business modelling, it can be shown that integrated resorts with casinos within do bring substantial economic benefits. This is not just hypothetical, there are proven examples around the world.

Reason no. 2a is quite plausible, though experience after a few years will tell us how right it is. However, 2a alone is not good enough reason to rule out casinos in Singapore. One has also to subscribe to 2b, because if Singapore is going to bear the social costs anyway from increased opportunities to gamble in the neighbourhood, then logic dictates that it is better to have the economic benefit of casinos on our shores than elsewhere.

Reason 3a is a matter of personal opinion. But 3a alone is not enough; one also has to believe that that so long as some people think it is immoral (even a majority), the government has no legitimate reason to allow casinos (3b).

It has never been clear to me which of these reasons the opposition parties subscribe to when they say they oppose casinos, but based on the little that I heard during the elections, I have the impression that they are just using the issue to lob cheap shots at the government: "They are so bankrupt of ideas for developing the economy, they have to resort to gambling!"

This kind of political discourse does us no good. It does not encourage an electorate to think and discern, nor does it offer any alternative vision.

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The relatively widespread sense of disgust with the People's Action Party may mask the fact that opposition to the PAP probably comes from 2 distinguishable ideological camps, albeit with overlap.

One camp I will call, for want of a better name, the socialist camp. They are more concerned with issues of economic disadvantage. They would like to see more control over the cost of living, more job protection or job creation and preferably a more redistributive economic policy. They are angry, perhaps, that they've had very little help. They get particularly upset with the perceived elitist instincts of the PAP.

It seems arguable to me whether there is any reason for this group to care very much whether Singapore has casinos or not. On the one hand, the prospect of jobs may appeal to them. On the other hand, the picture of gambling - and for some in this socio-economic group, that picture may be one of touts, loansharks and bum husbands -- may alarm them. Perhaps the opposition parties' ground feel is that there is more alarm than optimism about new jobs.

But this is where leadership is needed. If the rational consideration is that integrated resorts bring jobs and economic benefits, even to this group, and if we believe that social costs can be controlled (I do), then political leaders should explain the situation to their followers. Instead of lobbing cheap shots, pandering to the ridiculous notion that the PAP are such bad economic managers they've run out of ideas except gambling, an honourable leader should say, the PAP is mistaken on many issues, but on this one, they are right and we agree with them.

The other camp I will call the libertarian camp, again for want of a more accurate name. They oppose the PAP mostly because they cannot stomach the PAP's authoritarianism. Their economic complaints are not particularly strong, they may even be doing better than most out of our system, but they are driven by a sense that authoritarianism needs to be checked.

I think Minister for Community Development and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan's way of capturing the casino issue resonates with this group: It is a question of whether we trust in Singaporeans' maturity. It is only when we don't that a paternalistic government can be justified, stopping us from gambling for what others think is our own good. Yet the whole basis of opposing paternalistic authoritarianism is faith in Singaporeans' politically maturity and insistence that our freedom to speak, think and act as our conscience dictates should be respected.

That is to say, even if I myself think gambling is immoral, the libertarian in me still says that I cannot expect the government to impose my morality on others.
  

This ideological position cannot be squared with the paternalism represented by banning casinos on moral grounds. It may be compatible with opposing casinos on cost-benefit grounds, except that I find it hard to believe that intelligent people read cost-benefit on this issue as more downside than upside.

So once again, I don't see how it serves the opposition parties well to come down against casinos. It's a shame if merely the chance of taking potshots at the PAP overrides a more sober consideration of what is needed for Singapore's future. 

Yawning Bread 


 

  

 

Footnotes

None

Addenda

  1. The Workers' Party responded to this article with the Press Statement that the party had issued in April 2005 explaining why they opposed the casino. You can see it in the Comments section.