by Katie Palmer
At first glance, it seems as if the Government of Singapore has developed a brilliant plan to create jobs for local Singaporeans, to boost tourism, and to generate large amounts of revenue. By opening two world-class Integrated Resorts (IRs), a Singaporean euphemism for casino-based vacation resorts, tourism officials hope to achieve 17 million visitors a year and generate an estimated US$21 billion by 2015.
Aside from the revenue generated from the resorts, the casinos also have created approximately 35,000 jobs both directly and indirectly. This is fairly significant since the resorts opened during a large global economic crisis, and while most companies worldwide were downsizing, local Singaporeans could find employment.
With the rise of casinos emerges the potential for gambling-related problems. In an effort to lessen the risk, the government ordered the casinos to charge an entry fee of US$100 from Singaporean citizens and permanent residents and launched a statewide campaign against “problem gambling.”
In March 2011, I made a weekend trip to Singapore since it was cheaper for me to leave the Philippines where I was completing a CIDA-funded internship than it was to pay Filipino immigration officials to renew my visa. Lured by the magic of the Integrated Resorts, I begged my friend to accompany me to Resorts World on Sentosa Island.
Although we had a great time, I could not help but wonder what effects the new casinos were having on the local population. I began asking locals—the ones with the real knowledge—what impacts the casinos were having on them.
One local tells me, “The [entrance fee] is so ineffective. It’s a joke actually. Before the casinos opened in Singapore, gamblers would fly to Macau…The fee is so little compared to the costs of air travel, ground transportation, and overnight accommodations abroad.”A Singaporean taxi driver shares that the IRs are “great to bring in revenue…Before the casino and Universal Studios were constructed, the times were slow. Now so many tourists – mostly from China, Australia, Malaysia, and Indonesia - are coming here. And we are very busy.”
“But it’s not all good” he continues. “It is creating a lot of social problems among locals…Some [gamblers] are so bad they borrow money from loan sharks…And in more cases than not, these gamblers are abandoning their wives, their children, just so they can feed their gambling addiction.”
Focus on the Family Singapore, a local charity that provides quality family life educational programs, also weighs in on the social problems exacerbated by the development of IRs.
According to Vice-President Dinah Lee-Phua, the charity has become increasingly concerned with the direct impact of gambling on the family. Bankruptcy, imprisonment, family violence, family breakdown, and related substance abuse are all “problems commonly linked with gambling.”
Another negative social impact Lee-Phua has seen since the IRs developed is an increase in underground prostitution. Although she cannot give an exact figure on how much the flesh trade has increased, she does say it is an area for concern, since where there is prostitution, there are undoubtedly cases of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Braema Mathi, a local women’s rights activist, argues that since the opening of the casinos, “we see more women in the [prostitution] trade and definitely not all of them are willing.”
Perhaps not surprisingly the US Department of State downgraded Singapore to a Tier 2 in its annual Trafficking in Persons report since the opening of the casinos. According to the report, the majority of enslaved women in Singapore come from China, the Philippines, and Thailand. The report recommends the Singaporean government to increase the prosecution and conviction rates of trafficking offenders.
Won Kan Seng, the Minister for Home Affairs, shares another long-term social concern about the rise of casinos on Singaporeans and their work ethic: “Our achievements as a nation over the past four decades have been built on hard work and a meritocratic system. We do not want to promote the idea that depending on luck at the gambling table, rather than personal diligence in doing an honest day’s work, is the route to making money.”
Aside from the negative social consequences, there are also damaging environmental effects correlated with the development of the IRs. According to Abhineet Jain, the lead author of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Integrated Resort at Sentosa Island, there are high levels of irreversible damage to the country’s physical resources, ecological resources, and terrestrial ecosystems.
Despite Sentosa Island being home to several rare and endangered species, the government has not given the area special protection status. The development of the resort has resulted in habitat destruction, removal of airshed, soil erosion and sedimentation, the improper disposal of waste, loss of biodiversity, and water contamination.
Zaki Jalil, a Singaporean environmental teacher, says “Sure the casinos are great for economic development, but economic well-being is not the sole determinant of progress. What we see in Singapore is that once again the environment is being compromised for economic growth.”
The casinos in Singapore lend truth to the old adage that money cannot buy happiness. Without doubt, the Integrated Resorts in Singapore have boosted the city-state’s economy in the midst of a global economic downturn – but at a cost to both the social and environmental integrity of the region. And, if the government continues to place the economy above all else, in generations to come, the beauty of Singapore will be a mere memory.
About the Author:
Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She recently earned a graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor's degree in geography and gender studies also from the University of Toronto. In the past few years, Katie has traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times to research the effects of and responses to the flesh trade in women and children. Aside from The WIP, she has written for Gender Across Borders, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine on topics relating to gender, migration, development, and women and children in prostitution.