Family deaths stir casino debate in Singapore

March 20, 2005
By Jason Szep

SIMON Lee had a history of gambling addiction, losing S$100,000 (US$61,650) in 1995 until finally seeking help from his local preacher.

He seemed to have licked the problem, only to start pressing his friends for cash after losing US$2500 at a Malaysian casino in December.

This month, swamped in debt and pressured by loan sharks, the 40-year-old fell to his death from a 12th-floor flat. Inside their home, his wife, 11-year-old son and four-year-old daughter lay dead in an apparent murder-suicide.

With citizens currently deeply split over plans to open Singapore's first casino, the family tragedy gave opponents a vivid argument against the scheme.

Singaporeans seldom speak out against the government, but the deaths are stoking public emotion and stimulating a rare open policy debate. Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state's founding premier, says it has divided ministers into "moralists" and "pragmatists".

Police are still investigating, but Simon Lee's church has confirmed the gambling debts to Reuters. State-linked media have published details of a betting streak critics say is alarmingly familiar in a region where gambling dates back centuries.

"The tragedy of the Lee family shows the dangers involved in setting up a casino here. The government has to draw a line somewhere. There has to be a limit. Otherwise we are going to see more family tragedies," said Tan Eng Lock, 48.

Tan, a veteran social worker, has gathered nearly 29,000 signatures in an online petition to stop the casino.

"My sense is that most people are against it. After the deaths, there was a pickup in signatures but it wasn't really significant," he added, referring to his petition -- "Families Against the Casino Threat in Singapore" -- on


The government will announce its decision on April 18 after developers submitted plans in February for a Las Vegas-style casino resort that could cost US$1.9 billion, according to US investment bank Merrill Lynch, and boast theme parks, shopping plazas, a museum and convention halls.

Bidders include the biggest names in the business -- from Las Vegas giants Harrah's Entertainment Inc., MGM Mirage, Kerzner International Ltd. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. to Australia's Tabcorp Holdings and Singapore state-run developer CapitaLand Ltd.

Controversial debate is rare in Singapore, but rarer still is any suggestion of division within the ruling People's Action Party, which has governed Singapore without interruption since independence in 1965 and holds all but two seats in parliament.

"Dissent or opposition to policy ideas have appeared in the past in Singapore but not as strong as in this particular case," said Ho Khai Leong, author of several books on Singapore and a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

"This tragedy of the Lee family is really unfortunate timing in terms of politics. It's really bad for the government."

No reliable polls exist on the public's support for a casino and the government has ruled out holding a referendum on the issue. Online and telephone polls by state-run broadcaster Channel NewsAsia show a slight tilt in the population against it.

Former opposition politician Joshua Jeyaretnam, now a political activist, applied to authorities to hold a march at city hall in protest against the casino on April 17, a day before the government's decision. It's unlikely to go ahead.

Public expression is a delicate act in Singapore and police rarely approve requests for protests. Unlicensed gatherings of more than four people are illegal.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has loosened some rules on free speech since taking power last year but few are willing to test so-called "out of bounds" markers on what cannot be publicly discussed -- especially when it comes to politics.

Most experts and Singaporeans expect the casino to get a green light as Singapore fends off threats to its economy.

A casino would accelerate efforts to remould Singapore's $110 billion economy into a services hub as China's rapid economic growth erodes the island's traditional manufacturing base and fast-growing cities such as Bangkok vie for tourist dollars.

It would open a new avenue for tapping the growing affluence of Asian travellers, while plugging revenues lost to illegal gambling dens and countries where casinos are legal such as Cambodia, the Philippines and, potentially, Thailand and India.

Singaporeans already bet heavily in lotteries, on cruise ships and via illegal bookmakers. Merrill Lynch estimates that a casino could capture up to 60 percent of the $735 million Singaporeans spend each year gambling abroad.

Merrill expects the casino resort to be an "iconic" development worth nearly $5 billion and symbolising attempts to reinvent Singapore while staunching an erosion in the business-minded island's share of Asia's growing tourism market.

The government will restrict access for locals through membership fees of S$100 (US$62) per day or S$2000 a year to ease fears that a casino would fuel crime and inflict social ills in one of Asia's safest societies.

Merrill reckons a third of an estimated $2.1 billion a year in revenues from the casino resort will come from tourists. Critics say the rest would inevitably tap the earnings of vulnerable families such as the Lees.

"Once the green light is given it will be a point of no return. And Singapore will see many more tragedies like that of Simon Lee and his family," wrote Andrew Pang Siew Kwan in one of several recent letters to local newspapers on the issue.