As mentioned in my post on Thursday, I am disappointed to learn of the strong (albeit possibly inadvertent) official endorsement of gambling by our leaders by way of their attendance and participation at the upcoming lottery convention, as well as the financial support our government is pouring into this event.
I think it is timely to highlight some of the speeches made by a PAP MP and two Nominated MPs during the parliamentary debate on the proposal to develop integrated resorts in Singapore, which I have extracted from the Hansard. [Note: This debate took place after Cabinet had made its decision to proceed with the casinos.] Emphasis below is mine.
Thursday, 21st April, 2005
Parliamentary debate on proposal to develop integrated resorts
Mr Loh Meng See (Jalan Besar): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, this year we will be celebrating Singapore’s 40th year of independence. The Government has on Monday, 18th April, announced its momentous decision to develop two integrated resorts with casinos at Marina Bayfront and Sentosa.
I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister and Ministers who have spoken on the subject. Indeed, I can sense the ambivalence they held and the moral dilemma they faced in arriving at this very difficult decision. I respect their decision, as I have been taught to submit to those in authority who have been empowered and who will be held accountable for the decisions they made. We will render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
But I wish they had decided differently, as I disagree strongly in having a casino in Singapore. As I reflect on the matter, the question that plays in my mind is: why are we faced with such a Hobson’s choice today? Minister Mentor has said that “the cost of not doing it is even greater”. We have been told that not to proceed with the development is worse than proceeding with it. We have been asked to pay the perceived minimal cost in human suffering to enjoy the larger economic benefit. My view is that, after three and four generations, the costs will outweigh the benefits, and many of us here today will not be around to see the consequences, but our children and grandchildren will be.
Is this the way to measure policy outcomes? Have we fully explored all alternatives before we ask only casino operators to put the proposals? Are we sure that we want to put our destiny in tourism and a not insignificant part of our economy in the hands of two foreign casino operators? Are we sure that the novelty of integrated resorts would not wear out? Are they fully recession-proof? Would it not hollow out the other businesses in Singapore if one-third of the casino income is to come from Singaporeans?
After 40 years of independence, we must adjust our thinking from being fixated with the idea that economic prosperity is all that matters. There is a very high cost that accompanies with the single-minded pursuit of wealth and prosperity. We are already a developed economy enjoying a higher average per capita income. To have an annual economic growth of an average of 3-6% is not insignificant.
We need the cultural ballast and strong national values and social graces to provide the balance in the way we live. The world wants us to seek instant gratification and temporary pleasures, but if our people are too stressed out and not having the happiness, peace and joy in their hearts, then it counts for nothing. What our people need is healthy relationships with their family, neighbours and the community. Instead, we see dysfunctional families and quarrelling neighbours. In the lexicon of Thomas Friedman, we are forsaking our olive tree by trading it for a newer and bigger model of Lexus.
Personally, I am all for economic growth and prosperity. But I am not so sure whether, if we keep on going the way we are, our communities will not fall apart. Switzerland and the Nordic countries I hear earlier, have been held as excellent examples of how the Swiss work, live and play. I like some of what they do. We should follow the Swiss in keeping the Sabbath in not washing the cars and mowing the grass on Sundays, not flushing the toilets in the night as it could disturb the neighbours, buy and support locally-made goods even if they are more expensive than foreign goods. For every issue that affects the whole community, they hold a referendum to decide. The Swiss possess the maturity, strong cultural and social values that we Singaporeans lack.
We have read the document written by Mr Chia Teck Leng on the casino escapades. He feels that we ought to go ahead with the casino. I am not so sure how much weight we want to place on the opinions of a man who has been imprisoned because of his addiction to gambling. Unfortunately, we do not have a chance to hear the feeling of his wife and two teenage sons. If we were to hear their side of the story, we would have a different perspective of the untold harm that has been caused. My real concern is that we will not know whether we have made the right or wrong decision until perhaps 10 to 20 years later. By that time, the situation in Singapore would have deteriorated beyond recognition.
I cannot understand the argument put forward that, as gambling is already in existence, the harm is incremental in nature. Do we not know that two wrongs do not make a right? The damage and harm to society could be compounding and cumulative in nature and rising exponentially. With the proliferation of vices, we will be like frogs in hot water, and we do not know that we will be boiled to death.
The Government has made the decision. I will respect it. But I will discourage Singaporeans to contribute their expected one-third share to the casino income and, instead, contribute the money to charity to help the needy and disadvantaged. When political leaders share their stories of “little” gambling experiences in this House, unwittingly and subtly we are telling the young that it is all right to try and play 4-D and jackpot machines and have some fun. That, to me, is the thin end of the wedge, the beginning of disaster.
It is exactly what I am afraid of. Over time, our people’s guard will go down, slowly but surely. We can explain and rationalise our actions, we get into a mode of denial. Gambling and other vices become the norm in our society. Slowly, warm water turns to hot water, then to boiling water. It is a matter of degree, but it is also the difference between life and death.
This surely cannot be. Our young should be taught good moral ethical values. Gambling is like smoking, something not to be tried in the first place.
Therefore, I urge the Government to have a Code of Conduct for Ministers and MPs, civil servants and even directors of listed companies to be barred from gambling in the casino. Other associations, like the teachers’ unions, can also make voluntary pledges.
We require good records to be kept on the patronage of the casinos and we have a law that considers unexplained wealth to be ill-gotten gains. It is not just gambling that we should be concerned about, but the related effects of corruption, money laundering and organised crimes that come with it. We must protect and safeguard the integrity and reputation of Singapore’s financial centre status.
I would like to see the rules on casinos to be legislated rather than merely regulated. No flexibility should be given to the Government of the day to decide. I am confident of the present Government to manage and run the system, but as a safeguard for future generations, appropriate legislation should be instituted so that we can delay the ill-effects of gambling and ot
her vices breeding its ugly head on our society.
As we are proceeding to the next step of Requesting for Proposals, I would like the Government to have the ability to walk away and say “no” if there is a huge discrepancy between the concepts and the proposals submitted. Many house buyers would have experienced this – the house they receive at the end of the day is not what the one they saw in the drawings and design models. Therefore, we have to be alert and vigilant.
Remember, if we enter this realm, we are at the mercy of expert gamblers. On our side are politicians and civil servants who are, I think and hope, novices in this game.
Sir, I rest my case.
Assoc. Prof. Ong Soh Khim (Nominated Member) (In Mandarin): Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to join in the debate on the proposal for the establishment of integrated resorts with casinos. The Government announced on 18th April 2005 that it will develop two integrated resorts with casinos. In the past three days of the Parliament debate, many Ministers and MPs have raised many points. I have declared that I do not support the building of casinos in Singapore during the debate on the Presidential Address. Now, I would like to declare that I do not support the proposal for the development of two integrated resorts with casinos in Singapore. I have a few points to raise here for discussion.
In the debate on the Presidential Address, I mentioned that the setting up of a casino will be a source of all evils and this will be very bad to our social ethos. Where gamblers gather, there will be prostitutes, illegal moneylenders and drug traffickers. Incidents of drug-trafficking, kidnapping, vices and other forms of crime will be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. In the past three days of the Parliament debate, many of the Ministers and MPs agree with this point.
As analysed and agreed by the media, the arch crime is the setting up of a casino. It will bring about a whole lot of social problems, such as broken families, increased number of suicides and many children may have to stop their study, etc. In last month’s Budget debate, the Minister for National Development introduced regulations to prevent people from cashing in by reselling their HDB flats, so as to ensure that they have enough money for their old age. Does the Minister know that in many of these cases, these people have cashed in to pay for their mounting gambling debts? These social problems will increase manifold. In the debate over the past few days, we all agree that such problems will increase.
In the past three days, some Ministers and MPs have talked about their own gambling experience, and they said that they could exercise restraint or choose not to place any bets at the casino. Some MPs have also said that with the development of the integrated resorts with casinos, Singaporeans can choose not to enter the casinos as nobody forces them to enter the casinos to gamble. As mentioned earlier by an MP, if you lead a horse to a river and the horse does not wish to drink the water from the river, you cannot force it to drink the water from this river. However, it is easier said than done. For people who have lived a comfortable life and have strong will power, they can exercise self-control. However, for those people who may have slightly weaker will power, they may not be able to resist the temptation of going into the casino and become addicted to gambling. Why is this so? This is because for the poor and the lower-income group of people, this is a dream-seeking world. With the escalating cost of living, besides working on a few jobs to pay for the living expenses, the people in the poor and the lower-income group can only put their hope on gambling. The poorer they are, the more they would want to gamble, with the hope of changing their destiny. Whenever they buy a 4-D or Toto ticket or play at a gambling table, they are buying a dream – a dream to clear up their housing loans, a dream to provide for their children’s university tuition fees, a dream to give their parents a better life. Every time when the 4-D or the Toto result is out, thousands of dreams were shattered.
During my younger days (I was born after 1965, which was different from the generation of MM Lee, but I do know what is “chap ji kee”. I also know what is “four-colour cards”, the “si sek bai”), I have seen and experienced for myself the damage done by gambling of this nature. When I was small, I always wondered why we had to have porridge with soy sauce vegetables for our meals and I really could not understand the causes of this. Those people who have not experienced or seen such gambling would not be able to understand that feeling. They could say very lightly, “The people are free to choose whether to frequent the casino or not, nobody is forcing them to go to the casino!” I would not say that. With the casino just a few minutes’ drive away, the poor and the lower-income group of people would want to go and try their luck there with the hope of winning some money from the gambling tables.
The Ministers said that the Government is confident that we could build world-class integrated resorts with casinos and, at the same time, keep the social cost and crime rate at a minimum. Are we being too optimistic?
I have said before that some people are commenting why Singapore is always pushing to be the “first” in the world in everything we do – Number One airport, Number One sea port, Number One medical centre in Asia, etc. Do we really believe that Singapore is a superman, and we could excel in everything we do? Even before building the integrated resorts, we are already claiming that they are going to be world-class. Are we too optimistic and over confident in ourselves?
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I am a worrier, I am not so optimistic. The Government has considered and would implement a series of measures, such as the MCYS would set up all kinds of councils to prevent Singaporeans from going into the casino, and the Ministry of Home Affairs has also various measures to reduce or minimise crimes arising from gambling. All these measures would be set up as a safety net. However, all these measures and safety net are purely theoretical, that is, they are just on paper. Whether these measures will prove to be effective or not, nobody knows!
Based on various reports, the Government speculated on how the social problems and crime rate will increase if the integrated resort with a casino is built. However, these speculations are just purely theoretical. The ill effects of casinos are like an octopus with all the 10 tentacles reaching out to every node and corner of the society. At this moment, we do not really know the actual and full extent of the negative impact the casino would bring about.
One thing is certain: the casino will definitely bring with it negative impact on our society. However, we cannot be certain that the integrated resorts will really create 35,000 new jobs. This is just a theoretical speculation. We can be sure that Singapore will have to pay a price but we cannot be sure whether the so-called “huge” economic benefits will outweigh the social cost that we have to pay. At the moment, all these economic gains are mere theoretical speculation.
Hence, Singaporeans want to know whether the Government has any contingency and back-up plans to deal with unforeseen consequences.
At a lunch that SM Goh hosted for the NMPs, I spoke to SM Goh on the question of building a casino. I told him that as we take the first step, we should have already thought of the 10th step. He agreed with me. As such, I hope that the Government would share with the people the contingency and back-up plans. For example:
(1) If the number of people addicted to gambling is many times more than what the Government has predicted, what is the Government’s back-up a
nd contingency plans?
(2) If the crime rate is increased many times more than predicted by the Government, what will be the Government’s back-up and contingency plans for that?
(3) If the gambling ethos cause such adverse impact on our young people that many do not continue to pursue their education or career, and try to make a quick buck from working at the casinos, what kind of a contingency plan do we have? This is already a hot potato in Macau.
(4) At the same function, I also raised the point that we have to deal with the social cost arising from the opening of the casino. We agreed that we need to look into the incremental cost involved. Yesterday, SM Goh said that the social cost will not be too high. I am very worried, as I am a pessimistic person. I would like to know, if the cost for these measures to deal with the crime and social problems is an exponential increase, the Government has formulated any contingency and back-up plan to deal with this possibility.
Further, can the Government assure Singaporeans that the Government will stand firm on the restriction of Singaporeans to enter the casinos? After some years, if the operators tell the Government that they cannot make ends meet, and request the Government for liberalisation and relaxation of rules to allow more Singaporeans to go into the casinos so as to maintain the integrated resorts, will the Government succumb to such a request from the integrated resorts’ operators? Can the Government assure us that it will not compromise on its stand?
Finally, I would like to reiterate that I do not support the construction and development of the integrated resorts with casinos. If the Government introduces casinos into Singapore, then Singapore will and must pay a price for it. This reminds me of a classic phrase in the movie “Infernal Affairs II”, which is: “Chu lai hun de, zong you yi tian shi yao huan de.” I hope the price that Singapore has to pay for the economic gains and development that would be gained from the integrated resorts with casinos will not be too high. I hope our younger generation, our children, our grandchildren will not, in the next 20-30 years, pay this kind of “debt” incurred by the Government. I do not wish to see the Government being accused of leaving behind a heavy load of social debts for our future generations of Singaporeans.
Prof. Ivan Png Paak Liang (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, for allowing me to join in the debate. I just have two calls and a question. First, my call.
The call is that for the next big issue that we face as a country, would the Prime Minister and the Government please reverse the sequence – first debate in Parliament, then decide in Cabinet.
The present debate, which I have been following for the last four days, has all the flavour of a post-mortem. We have heard many moving speeches from senior Cabinet Ministers, honourable colleagues, but a decision has already been taken. I recall several years ago, the then Deputy Prime Minister Lee, gave an inspiring speech at the university. He urged our students to take an active role in the movie, not just sit back and be in the audience. So, next time, please, Sir, let us take an active role as actors and actresses in the movie, not just be the first audience. So my call for the next big issue is to let Parliament debate the issue before, and not after, the Cabinet’s decision.
Sir, my second call. On this point, I echo hon. Members Mr Chiam, Mdm Halimah, Mr Loh Meng See and Prof. Ong. Will the Government please commit to the House that in the future it will not relax the conditions on admission of Singaporeans to the casino? We have heard from the Prime Minister, the Senior Minister, Minister Mentor, and others, that there are many plans for integrated resorts with casinos. If they do not come here, or even if they come here, they may set up elsewhere – Bangkok, Phuket, we have heard many places. When this happens, all these would be competing for the same tourist dollars from China, India and elsewhere. It may be that the business for our integrated resorts will slacken, then the management may come back to the Government to say, “Oh, our business is not going so well. Please give us some concessions.”
Sir, my call is, please, would the Government commit that there would be no concessions?
Third, my question, Sir, which is related to my previous call: who, if any, will regulate the quality of the other features of the integrated resort? On this point, I also echo hon. Member Dr Loo Choon Yong. Initially, as the Senior Minister has said, we will get Celine Dion, Norah Jones, one of my favourites. We will get Cirque du Soleil. But what if business is not so good? The integrated resort might downgrade. We will get second-rate singers, third-rate circuses. My question is: will the operating franchise specifies standards of performance to ensure that we get only the top-class?