23 December 2004

Where oh where is the honest debate?

The final post

Singapore inches inexorably towards the casino. Don't let the 'thorough deliberation' in Parliament fool you.

Let those who have eyes, see. Let those who have ears, hear. And those who have patience, read.

The casino debate is anything but honest. We have mentioned that the only 2 sides, the only 2 mentionable positions sanctioned for public consumption, are the economic pro-casino and the moral anti-casino views. There is no reconciliation between the two (and would be very dangerous if a researcher manages to reconcile both considerations logically, like the NTU economic professors), and that just suits the theatricity of the debate fine.

What happens when you have two irreconcilable sides to a dilemma? You argue the hell out of each other, drive everyone to sleep while repeating the same points and making no concessions or improvements to the debate. Then everyone who the casino affects will lose attention and stop thinking about it. And that just serves the theatricity of the debate fine.

The decision's been made anyway

It's plain for people to see. Which side has to make a case for its views? Which side has to defend its assertions?

I don't see the economic pro-casino side having to give actual figures to justify the "positive economic returns" of the casino. They've been given a free pass. It's the anti-casino side that has to prove its case that the outcome is negative on the balance, that the social costs outweigh the social benefits. And of course, commentors in the press and media are muzzled from pointing out that it's possible to object to the casino on econometric calculations instead of pure morality.

Which side is so guaranteed of victory that it's making (lame) promises and concessions (that won't be upheld) as part of the normal debate, instead of arguing on the merits of the casino?

Let's look at the promises and concessions and laugh at them

1. "We'll just let the top 10% of Singaporeans enter the casino. It'll be for the rich and the foreigners."

The recognition here is that almost all casinos are bad for the lower classes; they are a tax on the poor. It is the poor and the middle classes that are more easily hooked and lose more (as a proportion of their earnings) at the gambling table.

Hence the concession: make the casino ultra-exclusive.

We predict the concession will be dropped the moment the casino is approved. It's a no-brainer that the majority of casino revenues come from the everyday low/middle classes who have the compulsion to spend 3 nights of every week just gambling.

Take away the bottom 90% earners. You have a nearly empty casino, devoid of the hustle and bustle. And who would go there?

2. "We'll run a referendum on the issue"

We predict they never will. A very slim majority of the Singaporean public is against the casino, and the only way to push it through is in Parliament.

But it creates a believable illusion of choice, doesn't it? A freedom to choose for the casino (of course, not against it, preferably).

It's as palpable as the lifting of the party whip so the 97% PAP-dominated Parliament is free to vote their conscience instead of pushing it through using sheer numbers.

Behind all this freedom is this implication: the casino deal can be forced down the throats, against the will of Singaporeans. However it will be so unpopular that it may jeapordise the ruling party.

Hence the need to let this be a 'free debate'. What we should look out for is whether the pro-economic side will take the hardline stand that this casino concerns the economic survival of Singapore, therefore making the vote subject to the party whip. While the cabinet realises the self-defeating essence of this strategy, it is nonetheless inching towards it, with its refusal to justify the economic returns and insistence to just say the casino is economically necessary.

All bets are off if there is a referendum at all. The last time we had one, the issue was a union with Malaysia, and the wise pro-merger leaders decided to count all blank and spoilt votes as Yes votes.

3. "We'll make the casino as inconspicuous as possible."

No kidding. In his National Day Rally speech, MiniLee said it would be possible to develop Sentosa as a family-focused destination with all kinds of educational, leisure and entertainment activities and installations... just that in the middle of it will be, well, you know... that inconspicuous thing that really, is just a small, tiny part of the overall family-oriented Sentosa.


An inconspicuous casino! Trust Singapore's leaders to seriously consider that, and trust Singaporeans not to snigger or call him out on that one. It's a no-brainer, but the free pass the media and the public gave MiniLee on that lamest excuse is worse than a no-brainer.

Our prediction

The casino idea will just - and only just pass with a tiny majority, with a 'strong' dissenting vote from PAP's backbenchers.

Taking the dissenters into consideration, Parliament approves the plan, but authorises Temasek to take a substantial or even controlling stake in the casino (which of course will be a monopoly. You think they'd want 2 or more casinos?).

MiniLee will swear it's all so Temasek can exercise social control and oversight to rein in possible excesses of the casino. It's not in it for the money, really.


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