Singapore ups ante for casino firms with new rules, bigger fine

PHOTO: Singapore ups ante for casino firms with new rules, bigger fine
Patrons having their identity cards scanned before entering the Resorts World casino.

SINGAPORE- In any casino, the odds favour the house. Using its house edge, Singapore is seeking to maximise economic profits and minimise social costs with tighter rules and tougher fines for two casino operators, along with new steps to curb problem gambling.

The wealthy and regimented city-state has enjoyed a windfall of tourism, jobs and revenue since Las Vegas Sands Corp and Genting Singapore Plc opened casino complexes in 2010, in part by linking their licences to how well they develop attractions that are not related to gambling.

Under that mandate, the two operators have added theme parks, museums, theatres and hotels, boutiques and restaurants to Singapore's landscape as the Asian business hub recasts itself as a global city and oasis for the rich.

Amendments to the Casino Control Act cleared Parliament late last year and now await formal passage into law, giving the operators of Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) little choice but to adapt to the new rules - including fines of up to 10 per cent of gaming revenue - and the costs of compliance.

"It is timely that the legislation be reviewed and further tweaks be made to ensure that the objectives of setting up the integrated resorts are achieved," said Yap Wai Ming, a partner at Stamford Law Corp who tracks casino regulation. "They have already invested billions of dollars and the casinos are still generating very healthy profits despite the enforcement actions."

MBS declined to comment on the new rules and a spokeswoman did not respond to another query about the prospects for its non-gaming business.

Genting Bhd chairman Lim Kok Thay said last month he expects tourists to play a big part in RWS's growth and its non-gambling business to continue to do better than the gaming side that brings in the bulk of revenues.

Although casino takings have dipped as some of the novelty wears off on a small island of 5.3 million people, earnings at both resorts likely topped US$1 billion (S$1.23 billion) last year as visitors poured in from China, Indonesia, Malaysia and further afield.

But there are rumblings about social ills. Some lawmakers question whether Singapore really needs casinos, and counsellors say they see more people who cannot control their betting.

For Jimmy, the opening of the two all-hours casinos pulled him back into a gambling addiction he had managed to keep in check for 14 years, sending his world crashing down with losses of S$250,000 over 13 months at the baccarat tables.

"Casinos did bring more jobs, more visibility for Singapore, more economic benefits," said the education professional, who is now free of debt and in counselling.

"Yet it's also undeniably true that the undercurrents behind these benefits are there too - broken families and ruined lives, and the increased social costs that come with it."

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding leader and influential elder statesman, resisted casinos for decades. He finally relented, he told National Geographic in 2009, when younger colleagues said "we must have a casino, otherwise we are out of the circuit of this fast set that goes around the world".

The government, which makes citizens and permanent residents pay a casino entry levy of S$100 a day or S$2,000 for an annual pass as part of efforts to deter problem gambling, shows no sign of abandoning its support for the two resorts.

But Las Vegas Sands and Genting Singapore could see fewer locals in their casinos under the new rules and risk much higher penalties for breaking them. The operators, who have been fined for admitting minors and failing to collect the government levy, will face a maximum penalty of 10 per cent of annual gross gaming revenue. The current cap on fines is S$1 million but, if fully enforced, the new ceiling could be closer to S$200 million.