Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Singapore’s casinos, crime, money lending and the case for ‘National Referendums’

Some years ago the Singapore government announced its decision to permit casinos in the hitherto straitlaced city-state. It was time to reinvent Singapore.   The government was searching for new ways to keep economic growth chugging along at the high rates Singaporeans took for granted.
At the time, it seemed that I was a minority voice opposed to the introduction of legalized gambling in our own backyard. My argument against casinos was not a moral one. If people wish to gamble that is their choice. Even without the casinos there were enough opportunities for Singaporeans to gamble away their wealth.
I felt that Singapore's brand image as a clean, friendly, though fun, place to live would be irreparably diluted.
Surely, the pros and cons of Singapore's casinos are contentious. Different analysts will reach opposing conclusion. However, the case against legalizing casinos in Singapore is supported by several recent developments.
Loan sharking activity has reached epidemic proportions. Moreover, based on anecdotal evidence, money lending (legal or otherwise) must be one of Singapore's fastest growing industries. Many observers cite circumstantial evidence linking gambling to increased prostitution, theft and other petty crimes.

Surely, the casinos have also had a positive impact on economic growth and real estate prices. Ask any real estate agent. Certainly, the average Singaporean real-estate punter had a field day deciding which locations would benefit most from the integrated resorts (aka casinos). However, the casinos' impact on Singapore's economic growth is hard to isolate from broader trends within the economy.
However, Singapore cannot rewrite history. The decision has been made and Singapore must move forward. Singaporeans must live with the consequences of having casinos within its borders.
One discussion point from the casino experience pertains to the process through which Singapore resolves potentially divisive national issues in the future.
Democratic governments, including Singapore's, derive political legitimacy through the electoral process. Legally, the Singapore government is empowered through successive parliamentary elections to make difficult decisions on behalf of the population. The government has used these same powers to create a modern, vibrant and thriving republic.
However, these last few years have seen a sea change in Singapore's political atmosphere. Citizens are clamouring for a greater voice in their future. In turn, the government is actively seeking ways to increase engagement with the population.
One solution for resolving issues of national importance is devolving decision making powers to citizens through National Referendums.
A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. Particularly for smaller nations, referendums are a useful tool to generate public debate with a view to achieving a decision all citizens can respect.
Switzerland, a role model for Singapore in so many ways, places great emphasis on referendums. Referendums are an important part of Swiss political life. In Switzerland, referendums may be forced upon the nation by popular consensus and referendum results are legally binding upon the government.
For Singapore's educated and increasingly politicized population, the National Referendum is an attractive option. It is an idea whose time has arrived in Singapore.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

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