Yawning Bread. 24 December 2009

What we don't read about casinos and Rwanda




This picture of the Marina Sands casino project was taken on 23 December 2009. Does it look like it will be ready and open for business in four months' time?

Yet, a cheery story in the Straits Times the day before had proclaimed: "Sands says IR will be up and running by April". To be fair, the report is of an interview with Sheldon Adelson, the chairman of Las Vegas Sands, who can be expected to talk up the much-delayed project.

That said, a critical reader would surmise from the body of Straits Times' story that Sands is going to do nothing more than a token opening in April 2010 in order not to forfeit its operating licence. The first guests, who may well be generously induced to attend, would stay, eat and gamble a little amid construction dust and noise. One can gather as much from reading between the lines of these two paragraphs from the news story:

That means about 1,000 hotel rooms, several eateries (including three of its six celebrity-chef restaurants), part of the convention facilities and the casino floor will have to be ready by then, or the operator risks failing to secure its casino licence.

The rest of the project will open in phases before the end of next year.

-- Straits Times, 22 Dec 2009, Sands says IR
will be up and running by April

But if that is the chief message that one takes away from the Adelson interview, why is the headline so positive?

Because there have been grouses online by people who have been promised employment by Sands over the uncertainty of when their training and actual employment will commence. They have quit previous jobs or turned away other work in the expectation that paid training would commence in the 4th quarter 2009. Now that this has not materialised, they are in a cash-loss limbo.

The Straits Times itself carried a story on their plight the Saturday before.

At least 20 employees are grousing online about being left in the lurch. The Straits Times spoke to seven, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardising their jobs.

They admitted that their letters of appointment had not specified a starting date, but all claimed they had been told verbally that training was likely to begin in October.

A man in his 30s, hired as a dealer, said: 'I was told to send in my resignation early if I needed to serve three months' notice.'

But since stopping work in September, he is still waiting for the call to start training. He is living on his savings.

-- Straits Times, 19 December 2009,
Some Sands job seekers in a quandary

This issue was apparently put to Adelson in the interview. His response was that training would commence "early next year".

What struck me most about this episode was how evident Straits Times' split personality was. On the one hand, they are trying to be an honest newspaper, reporting the facts that come to them, whether it is what prospective employees are grumbling about or what Adelson actually said in response.

On the other hand, you also see the urge to paint the news in rosy colours, a throwback to the days when newspapers are supposed to be part of the "nation-building" effort (or still is?). Among the instincts acquired from those days is the avoidance of bad news, so as not to demoralise the public -- that way, their support for government-led schemes to "develop" the country will not flag.

And indeed, the casinos (there's another one on Sentosa, now about to open) are government-led schemes. Many people remain unconvinced that large-scale gambling operations constitute development. Our "responsible" newspapers are no doubt aware that any bad news from the project will be fodder for the simmering fire, and feeding that fire would upset their political masters.

So instead of a more accurate headline saying something like "Sands aims for partial opening in April to secure licence", it comes out a whole lot more positive -- that the project will be "up and running by April".

But people are not stupid, or at least I hope not. They can read for themselves, and they can see how much spin has been put into the pronouncements. There are also alternative viewpoints from blogs and web forums. And now and then, some annoying fella puts up a photo of the Sands project as it really looks, at the top of his online article. When people will see through the spin, it probably reinforces all the alienating things they feel about our "nation-building press".

* * * * *


Then there's that very strange article about Rwanda that appeared a few weeks ago. See excerpt at right.

Here's what we can decipher: Rwanda sent a large delegation of officials to "learn" from Singapore earlier in 2009. In return, a team of Singapore civil servants, retired or otherwise, were sent to the small landlocked African country to provide advice. More recently, a team of journalists were sent to Rwanda to report on progress.

You can imagine that the journalists met precisely those people in Rwanda who were going to say nice things about Singapore. How very convenient.

The result is a story that puffs up Singapore as some kind of benevolent bigger brother, with the punchline that since Rwanda wants to emulate us, our system of governance must be fantastic. Words like "inspirational model", "transcendent", "appealing elements", "prized" and "achievers" are woven into the story, which ends up sounding almost like an epiphany.

Look, the mundane fact is that, like many countries that have reached a certain stage of development, we are now in a position to provide assistance to others, just as Singapore itself was a recipient of aid and technical advice from Britain, Japan, Australia and others a couple of decades ago. However, just as we didn't gush over those other countries and their models of governance in those days, so let's not believe everything Rwandan officials say about Singapore today. We shouldn't let our new role as aid-givers get to our heads; we shouldn't score it into a hallelujah chorus for our government and the ruling People's Action Party.

Doing so only confirms what everybody already suspects: the chief purpose of media in Singapore is to sing praises about our government and the PAP.

The Straits Times article about Rwanda caught my eye precisely because Rwanda featured strongly -- and in a negative way -- in the discussions at the Commonwealth meetings in Trinidad, which I attended November 2009.

Rwanda, although it was never a British colony, applied to join the Commonwealth a few years ago. The Commonwealth Secretariat was tasked to produce a report and a recommendation, focussing on two key aspects: democracy and human rights. The study came back with a mixed review; in particular, there were worrying human rights failings. Yet, Rwanda's admission to the Commonwealth was railroaded through at the summit.

This upset a number of people who wanted to uphold higher standards. The Commonwealth has a proud history of standing up for democracy and human rights. It was instrumental in applying consistent pressure on South Africa and Rhodesia until apartheid was dismantled. It suspended Pakistan and Fiji (which still remains suspended) when military coups toppled elected governments. With the grouping's reputation at stake, it was felt that Rwanda should not benefit from inclusion -- and the fact that it applied to join the Commonwealth would tell you that is saw benefit from joining -- until it met higher standards.

As an example of human rights worries, earlier in the year, news had spread that Rwanda was going to introduce a new law criminalising homosexuality (like most placed never colonised by Britain, it currently has no such law). It was the local gay group that first alerted the world to the proposal. There is a wave of fundamentalist Christian-driven homophobia in Africa that has already led to a new anti-gay law in Burundi passed in April 2009 [1], and is leading to a tougher law in Uganda setting out life imprisonment and capital punishment for homosexual acts. Burundi and Uganda are Rwanda's neighbours.

The United States and the European Union reportedly weighed in the matter, asking the Rwandan government to cease and desist. Fortunately, they seem to have succeeded, though the Rwandan government, perhaps to save face, now denies there was such a proposed law in the first place.[2]


12 Dec 2009
Straits Times

Cheers to a new Rwanda

The world believed Rwanda was destined to be a failed state after the genocide in 1994. One million lives were lost in 100 days on a horrific scale and speed never before imagined. For survivors, it was a land of the walking dead.

Death, 15 years later, is still the paramount image when Rwanda is remembered. However, Singapore, which loves to spot winners, sees an entire country on the move. It is now a player in the rebirth of Rwanda.

It is doing what it has done best since Singapore itself was an improbable nation in the 1960s: It is taking on the singularly pragmatic task of building vital institutions for a vulnerable land, this time Rwanda.

Rwanda's gross domestic product per capita, at US$1,600 (S$2,200), is almost similar to Singapore's in 1962. Singapore is involved in several realms: Rwanda's civil aviation and city planning, social security and skills development.

It has offered this public-sector expertise to the distant East African nation in the past couple of years.

The lead agency is the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise, a fleet-footed force of road warriors. The agency was formed in 2006 by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to respond effectively to the many foreign requests to tap on Singapore's development experience. Its ranks include retired senior civil servants who had sheltered the nation, shaped its systems and sped it to First World status.

Such appealing elements of our development model are prized by scores of nations such as Rwanda, China and states in the Middle East.

While the work in Rwanda appears wholly pragmatic, the government in its capital Kigali sees Singapore in a more transcendent light.

The island is an inspirational model for little Rwanda which aims to be a middle-income country by 2020 and desires to be the Singapore of Africa.

Says Mr Francis Gatare, 42, chairman of the Rwanda Workforce Development Authority: 'Singapore's remarkable economic achievement is an inspiration to any country that aspires to take its destiny in its hands.'

'You are achievers who have gone ahead of us,' says the Canadian-trained economist and presidential adviser, who returned in 2000.

His view of Singapore was widely shared by dozens of policymakers and residents in the eight days that Saturday Special spent in Kigali and its green environs.

Some had also been interviewed in Singapore between March and July when 100 senior officials and instructors made training trips all over the island.



Rwanda's Minister for Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, was quoted, 16 December 2009, as saying that the state has no right to regulate private sexuality: "The government I serve and speak for on certain issues cannot and will not in any way criminalise homosexuality; sexual orientation is a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation -- this is not a State matter at all."

He however admitted that there had been discussions with Rwanda's development partners (i.e. Western countries) on this issue, which only reminds us of the saying: There is no smoke without fire.

It is precisely because Western countries take an interest in human rights that African countries are now turning to Asia for aid and development assistance. African governments want to get help without having to live up to higher standards of democracy and human rights. China is the leading aid-giver now, and to that extent can be described as complicit in the keeping African peoples shackled by illiberal governments.

Shouldn't we therefore ask: Why is Rwanda so interested in getting help from Singapore, to the extent that their officials are singing such praises of us, praises our mainstream media lap up so eagerly?

Is there another story (unpublished of course) behind the Straits Times' story?

Yawning Bread 


Here's a bit of irony: By this measure, Rwanda deserves to be in the Commonwealth more than Singapore. Where it has forsworn an anti-gay law, here we're still clinging on to our Section 377A.



  1. Burundi's new law penalises homosexual acts with up to 2 years' imprisonment. Source: AFP, 25 April 2009, Rights groups slam Burundi law criminalising gays. Link
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  2. Source: AllAfrica.com, 16 December 2009, Rwanda: Govt cannot criminalise homosexuality - Minister. Link.  
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