Gambling hard
    for the money

   Singapore is winning big thanks to the new casinos in the city-state. But the high-rollers are also losing large amounts of money, causing consternation among the public. The gambling habit, it seems, has become deeply entrenched.
  Star, Malaysia
August 28, 2010

INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE

SIX months ago, Singapore’s history took a crucial turn when it opened the first of its two casino resorts that cost US$10 billion to build.

Today, both of them seem to be packing the crowd in, including high rollers who believe that they have to bet big to win big.

So far the winners are Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) and, of course, the Singapore economy.

Like their peers elsewhere, the new industry here is beginning to accumulate something resembling its own Hall of Misfortunes.

On top of the list is local businessman Henry Quek, who lost S$26.3 million after a few day’s work at the baccarat table in the Malaysian-owned Sentosa casino.

According to Today newspaper, his misadventure began in March only a few weeks after its launch when he was granted a credit line of S$500,000.

It was eventually raised higher and higher to S$2 million, and his losses mounted.

At one stage, his girl companion cried for the casino to stop providing him any more credit.

In a single day, the managing director of a seafood-processing and trading company had lost S$18million, playing at S$400,000 a hand.

Quek, in his 50s, initially lost a larger amount, but managed to reduce it to S$16.3 million, a close friend told a reporter.

He has since paid part of it, but still owes the operators S$11 million.

The moustachioed Quek is also the president of the Seafood Industries Association Singapore. Normally loud-talking, he is now rather quiet, according to his high-roller friend.

There have been others. Two days later, Chinese newspapers reported that Taiwan pop star Jay Chou lost S$2 million playing at Marina Bay.

An online source said 12 gamblers had chalked up unpaid losses of S$5-S$11 million, and about 200 Malaysians and Chinese still had unpaid losses ranging from S$500,000 to $2 million.

Blogger Merl Haggard reported he knew of another wealthy Singaporean who was worth “at least S$300 million” also lost S$26 million at Sentosa, but there has been no confirmation.

Despite disincentives, Singapo­reans are believed to make up one third of the total casino gamblers.

The rest are foreigners who come from Malaysia, China and the region.

There have been winners, too, but unlike losers – the big ones are often publicised. The most common are winnings of S$100,000 to S$200,000 each.

Early this month, an ethnic Chinese from Indonesia won the biggest jackpot payout of S$2.2 million.

In April, a French tourist struck a S$1.66 million jackpot.

Today, the sentiment has changed dramatically compared to the gloomy projections just before the launch, when most analysts were predicting failure.

Some even labelled the investment a potential disaster. Today, the opposite is happening.

The two casinos are earning more than S$16 million a day - or a prospective S$6 billion a year.

Resort World Sentosa alone could hit a S$1 billion profit jackpot in 2010.

Revenue-wise, the overall big winner is Singapore which has attracted some four million new tourists.

It has become the second biggest casino market in Asia after Macau, and looks set to replace Las Vegas as the second biggest revenue earner after Macau in three years’ time

Despite its size, Quek’s story pales in comparison to the tragedy of Chia Teck Leng, nicknamed Singapore’s “King of Gamblers.”

In 2005, Chia, 44, was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment for committing the largest commercial fraud in history.

The then finance executive of an MNC, he swindled four banks of S$117 million to feed his gambling habit.

He gambled big and lost big in casinos in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines, which sometimes flew him there in private jets.

Chia’s precise losses were not known, but it was not too far behind the world record held by US businessman, Terrence Watanable, who lost US$127 million over a year in Las Vegas.

The others included Zhenli Ye Gon, who blew US$125 million at The Strip and Australian billionaire, Kerry Packer, who reportedly lost up to US$40 million in 10 months.

The recent cases of mega-losses have stirred up more public derision than sympathy.

But the society’s overriding concern remains the potential negative impact on society at large.

Before the casinos came, Singa­poreans were already spending S$6 billion a year on legal gambling, plus another $1.5 billion in cruises and offshore casinos.

Two years ago, a government survey found about 1.95 million Singaporean adults – or 54% - had indulged in some form of gambling in the previous year.

“Pathological gamblers” make up to 1.6%, or 56,000 people.

To minimise widespread casino gambling, the government has imposed a S$100 entry fee per day, and allows families to apply to stop a habitual gambling member from going in.

Has it worked? It does not seem so.

Sadly, up to a million Singaporeans are predicted to want to try their luck this year.

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com

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