The PH casino industry shows its darkest side

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Ben D. Kritz

THE tragic incident at Resorts World exposed an alarming number of potentially deadly issues in public safety, law enforcement and media reporting. But perhaps the most alarming of all is the social risk of allowing and encouraging the growth of casino gambling in this country.

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As we now know, the attacker was a former employee of the Department of Finance, dismissed from government service for having “unexplained wealth” – assets that he did not report to the government as required, and were in excess of what he could reasonably be expected to own based on his income.

That was only part of his story, however; although details are vague, the man was evidently a gambling addict, heavily in debt not only to banks but also to what might be politely called informal lenders, the sort who tend not to be very flexible in their repayment terms. According to news reports over the weekend, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) had banned him from all their casinos at the request of the man’s family, who was aware of his problem.

The little bit the public now knows about the man’s circumstances explains the utter irrationality of his actions at Resorts World, which were not those of a person who had a plan of any sort, whether it was to rob the place or create terrorist mayhem.

Poor, and in some cases irresponsible information management on the part of the authorities and the media, caused needless panic, and incredibly, managed to downplay the severity of the incident and blow it out of proportion at the same time. That is a rich issue for debate on its own, but in partial defense of those who were trying to convey information, the desperately strange behavior of the attacker certainly did not make that job any easier.

The evidently poor preparation and response of the casino management itself to an emergency is likewise another topic for critical discussion, and over the coming weeks and months, it appears that the management of Resorts World will not be looked on favorably. But those shortcomings also may be mitigated to a degree, although not absolved, by the odd and almost inconceivable nature of the attack.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, one question that almost certainly won’t be asked but should be is whether there should even be casinos in the Philippines, or if so, whether access to them should be so open. This country has a huge appetite for gambling, often to its own detriment, and very few enforced or even enforceable rules to keep people from harming themselves or others because of it. The correlation of crime with gambling is well documented, and it is a social issue the Philippines has grappled with for years; yet developing an industry whose business model is entirely based on gambling – no matter how much it tries to play up its “resort” aspects – has become an economic priority.

Singapore also faced many of the same issues concerning gambling as the Philippines does: a culture with a strong appetite for that sort of amusement, and rampant unregulated opportunities to pursue it. The line between overbearing state control of personal behavior and reasonable freedom to exercise personal responsibility is rather fine, but it’s one Singapore’s leaders have not thought twice about crossing if they feel doing so is for the greater good, and as a result, the city-state imposes tough regulations on its own people when it comes to gambling.

This presented a bit of a problem a little more than a decade ago, when Singapore was considering casino development as another revenue stream. To avoid creating gambling problems it had already spent years trying to control, the government decided to legalize casino gambling only on the condition that the industry would cater primarily to foreign tourists rather than locals.

Singaporeans are not strictly prohibited from the casinos by the government – although many of them are by rules imposed by their employers – but in order to help keep them from falling into the same hopeless situation as the Resorts World attacker, the government requires residents to buy an $80 daily pass or $1,600 yearly membership in order to enter either of the city’s two casinos. At the same time, the government enhanced social services for people with gambling problems; obliging people to purchase a pass or membership helps to identify those who may be running into trouble, so that ideally, intervention can be made before they become the next Resorts World shooter.

It is not a perfect solution, which is why the government of Singapore has to expend continuous effort to police its population to stop illegal forms of gambling. Put the two initiatives together, however – tough, for-your-own-good restrictions on gambling and then consistent enforcement of those restrictions – and problem gambling and its associated crimes are kept to an acceptable minimum.

If the Philippines wishes to expand the casino industry and make it a proper tourist attraction – rather than a destination that poses an evident risk to life and limb – it should strongly consider where in the country’s social fabric it wants that industry to be and manage it appropriately, as Singapore has done.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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