Singapore lays its cards on the table
Laws and regulator being put in place to ensure 'safe' casinos
Wednesday - September 28, 2005
Teo Hwee Nak, Deputy News Editor
WELL before the first casino opens for business, a simple rule - with enforcers to back it - will already be in place: No criminal shadows or illegal activities. This is Singapore.
Nothing will be left to chance. The Casino Control Bill will be ready as early as next year to spell out the ground rules. Then, in 2007 or the year after, a regulatory body for casinos will be born.
Its job, said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, will be to ensure that "the casinos remain free from criminal influence and that illegal activities on the premises are kept under control".
The regulator will be a full-fledged agency that will play the multiple roles of rule-maker, licensor, inspector, enforcer, auditor and adjudicator, Mr Wong told Today in an exclusive interview.
Apart from drawing up the rules on games and the gaming machines, it will also audit and approve the casinos' internal controls such as accounting procedures, cash and chip movements and security protocols.
It will be the one licensing the casinos at the Integrated Resorts (IRs), the casino employees and junket operators, and also the one policing them.
If the casinos violate the rules and regulations on gaming, the regulator will have the power to impose fines on the operators and to suspend or terminate their licences.
Added Mr Wong: "Where there are disputes between the casinos and their patrons, for example over winnings, it will step in to investigate and adjudicate."
This new department, which will take shape at least a year before the first of the two casinos opens in around 2009, will not be very large.
Said Mr Wong: "We don't want an oversized department and end up not having much to do. We hope we don't have much to do, but at the same time when we need to do a job, we make sure we have enough people to do the job or, at least, to understand how to do the job."
Shouldering these responsibilities demands not only policing and enforcement, but also close cooperation with the casino operators.
"Because, ultimately, what do the operators want? They want a safe and secure environment for their business in order to attract people to their casinos or to see their shows," said Mr Wong. "We also want the same environment so that Singapore would remain a safe and secure place for Singaporeans, not just for foreigners."
Even though the casinos will not be up and running for another four years, a small department in the Home Affairs Ministry has already started work quietly.
This six-man committee, headed by former police intelligence department director T Raja Kumar and comprising a group of officers from the police and other Home Team departments, "will be the nucleus of the casino regulator", said Mr Wong.
"The casino regulatory body has been working very hard," he said. "They've also been visiting other countries to understand the intricacies of becoming a regulator."
Once the details are worked out with the Australian authorities, the police will also send some officers there to get hands-on experience.
Mr Wong himself has been doing some travelling.
"I've been to other places to see how other countries regulate their casinos. I was in Australia and Macau to look at the way casinos are being regulated and how they operate. We've had briefings from operators themselves in Macau," he said.
All that he and his officers have learned from these overseas study trips will be built into the regulatory framework, which his ministry is currently working on in consultation with other agencies.
This framework, in the form of the Casino Control Bill, will provide the necessary legislation to empower the casino regulator and the police to carry out their roles.
In November, Mr Wong will visit Las Vegas, the word's casino capital.
It will not be his first time there. About three years ago, he was there with friends as a tourist.
But instead of spending his time at the roulette table, the man who has helmed Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry for more than a decade chose to brave the scorching desert heat.
"Of course, I didn't do much in the casinos," he said, laughing. "That wasn't my interest. My interest was to have time on the golf course and to enjoy the food. To see the shows and try the entertainment and the shopping."
That does not come as a surprise, considering he has made it clear in Parliament that he was initially against Singapore building casinos.
"I don't think that (view) has changed very much," he said. "But I think the Government has made the decision. That's an evolving decision that will affect Singapore and which will ensure we stay ahead of our neighbours competitively. Recently, the Thai prime minister said they want to build a casino, as well.
"We're in a race, and when we're in a race, we've to make sure that we all run together, that we are a team. So whatever reservations people may have over the IRs, I think having decided on this, we have to make it work.
"And my job is to ensure that it works and that it does not compromise the safety and security of Singapore."