Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Resorts World Free Shuttle Bus Services

Citizens as casino watchdog
Public can raise alarm if IRs cross line in luring Singaporeans to gamble

Sep 15, 2010

By Elgin Toh

THE Casino Regulatory Authority's (CRA) halting of nearly all free bus services by the integrated resorts (IR) last week is an example of how ordinary Singaporeans can make a stand for the kind of society they want to live in, by voicing their concerns to the authorities.

To recap: Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) had, for three months, been busing Singaporeans from the HDB heartland to its premises, free of charge.

The first RWS route was introduced in Tiong Bahru in June. By early this month, the services had reached 12 HDB town centres, including Ang Mo Kio, Jurong East, Tampines and Choa Chu Kang. Next was Marine Parade. Each time it added a service, RWS sent advertisement fliers to the HDB blocks close by.

A daily average of 2,500 passengers took the buses. A Straits Times poll of commuters suggested that as many as 40 per cent ended up at the gambling tables.

It was a Bukit Panjang resident, concerned that the buses were making it too convenient for Singaporeans to gamble at the casinos, who spoke to his Member of Parliament, Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Mr Liang decided to file a parliamentary question, asking the Government whether the free shuttle services would encourage gambling among Singaporeans.

The Straits Times learnt of the parliamentary question and asked the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports about its position on the free shuttle services.

Responding to this newspaper's queries, the ministry said last Wednesday night that it would investigate the matter, adding: 'The IR operators will not be allowed to target the local market or provide incentives in any form for Singaporeans to patronise the casinos.'

RWS responded by saying it would voluntarily cease the bus services by last Sunday. But a CRA directive last Friday forced an end to the services immediately.

Marina Bay Sands, which ran free shuttle services to the airport and hotels, and paid shuttles to Orchard Road and Outram, stopped all of them except the one to the airport, which was allowed by the CRA.

Some Singaporeans think the Government overreacted. One commuter said: 'Can you tell them to bring back the free buses? The parking is so expensive. Singaporeans can decide for themselves whether or not to board the bus.' A group of disgruntled RWS customers started a Facebook group to lobby the authorities to allow the free bus rides.

But if one considers reports from social workers and voluntary welfare organisations indicating that more problem gamblers have been seeking help since the casinos began operating here, one would conclude the Government acted rightly.

[An increase in problem gambling was expected. That was already recognised as a risk but a risk we would managed with various measures. Including increased awareness of problem gambling and spotting the signs of problem gambling.]

After all, when the building of the casinos was approved in 2005, the guiding principle was it should not encourage gambling among Singaporeans. Targeting Singaporeans who live in the HDB heartland to visit the IRs where the casinos are violates that principle.

Of course, there are safeguards already in place to make it hard for Singaporeans to gamble at the casinos.

There is a $100 entrance levy which Singapore citizens and permanent residents have to pay. Problem gamblers or their family members can get exclusion orders barring them from entry to the casinos. The Casino Control (Advertising) Regulations 2010 also prohibits the casinos from advertising outside areas frequented by tourists.

[Apparently, the free shuttle bus service can override the $100 entrance levy. If the convenience of a shuttle service to the doorstep can override the $100 levy, perhaps the Sentosa Express should not stop at the Waterfront station right next to Resorts World? The IRs are more than just the Casino. That was the plan and that was the implementation. The bus takes the passengers to Sentosa, to the IRs. Most of the passengers are not going to the casino proper but could be using the free transport to get to the other attractions.]

But the IRs generate most of their profits from gambling, and have every incentive to induce visitors to gamble. Whatever new marketing strategies they come up with should be scrutinised to make sure they do not target Singaporeans.

In the bus incident, casino operators benefited from a regulatory loophole. The buses to the IRs had government approval to stop at public bus stops. The regulations ban casino advertising outside tourist areas, but say nothing about providing transport to the casinos.

The CRA can, and should, clarify the rules and make explicit what the casinos are not permitted to do.

What other lessons can Singaporeans take away from the free bus saga?

First, ordinary Singaporeans should be encouraged to speak up about issues they feel strongly about, for doing so can effect change. It took just one concerned resident - and his energetic MP - to stop the IRs' free shuttle services.

Next, the saga shows it is up to the public to keep tabs on the casinos. In some countries, safeguards to prevent problem gambling from taking root, introduced when the casinos were first opened, were simply eroded over time.

In the United States, when Atlantic City's first casinos opened in 1978, they were made to close from 6am to 10am, because it was believed compulsive gamblers needed time away from the tables. But those rules were lifted in 1992, and the casinos now run 24 hours a day.

The rules in Britain at one time required casinos to admit only members, with new prospective members having to wait 48 hours - a cooling-off period - after making an in-person application. This waiting period was cut to 24 hours in 1997, and dropped altogether in 2007.

Questions have been asked as to whether the IRs are promoting casino-related packages to their Singaporean visitors, with some local visitors saying hotel vouchers have been dangled before them to entice them to visit the casinos.

Last week, the Government said explicitly that incentives must not be offered to Singaporeans to gamble at the casinos.

The IRs cannot be expected to self-regulate, so the authorities will have to be vigilant. Singaporeans must also be responsible and exercise restraint in gambling.

And given the creativity of businesses, the average Singaporean also has a part to play, to raise the alarm should he or she feel the IRs have crossed the line in luring Singaporeans to gamble.

Another knee jerk response?

Singaporeans can decide if they want to use the shuttle bus services to the integrated resorts
Updated 12:36 PM Sep 15, 2010

by Conrad Raj

The decision by the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) to stop the free bus rides provided by the two integrated resorts here, except from certain destinations like the airport and hotels, appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to complaints from the anti-gambling lobby.

The CRA's action followed a probe by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) to ascertain that Singaporeans are not being enticed to the casinos.

This in turn resulted from concerns raised by certain MPs, including Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) that the free shuttle rides from 19 destinations across the island, mainly to and from the HDB heartlands, amounted to providing incentives to Singaporeans to gamble at the casinos.

The two resorts had been providing the free shuttle rides since June having obtained permission for the service and the routes from the Land Transport Authority.

If the service was in violation of the casino rules, why did it take some three months for the CRA to act? Is this also another case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, given that the LTA had given the go ahead?

Resorts World Sentosa's (RWS) vice-president for resort operations Noel Hawkes had been quoted as saying that the resort had been working with government agencies to ease congestion at the junction of Telok Blangah Road and the Sentosa Gateway by providing bus services.
He is said to have further stated that services to the heartlands was part of its overall transport plans "so that we would bring people here by public transport and avoid people having to take their cars and jam up the junction".

What's going to happen now? What if the jams get worse? Erect ERP gantries? It is not as if everyone using the service went to the casinos to gamble. In fact, the vast majority used them to get into Sentosa or the various outlets at the integrated resorts.

According to survey by RWS more than 60 per cent of the 2,500 people who made use of the free bus rides daily did not end up at the gaming tables or the jackpot machines.

Remember the whole idea of naming them integrated resorts and not just casinos?

So, the majority are being punished for the sins of the minority. What makes the authorities so sure that the minority will not end up at the casinos in any case? Die-hard gamblers will find their way to the gaming tables by hook or by crook.

Isn't the $100 levy per person for entry to the casinos supposed to dissuade Singaporeans and permanent residents from making wagers at the gaming tables?

Perhaps, the discriminatory levy is not high enough and should be raised? And not forgetting we also have the casino exclusion measures as additional safeguards to stop problem gambling. Members of the family or the gambler himself can apply to have him or herself excluded from entering any of the casinos.

Why did Marina Bay Sands, which claimed not to have provided buses to the HDB heartlands, have to stop its paid bus services as well as its free shuttle services to the hotels?

Yet, the Singapore Turf Club is allowed to provide paid bus services from certain destinations. Why do people go to the Turf Club? To admire the horses and smell the hay?

There also appears to be some hypocrisy - at the very least a turning of blind eyes - to the gambling in the heartlands, be it on soccer matches here and abroad, Toto, Four-D, and the races at the numerous betting shops of the Totalisator Board.

As a result of the cessation of the free rides, the bus owners stand to lose heavily on their gamble to buy two dozen new buses to service the routes. And a number of bus drivers may be out of job following the CRA move. Can they claim compensation from the CRA considering that initial approval had been given by the LTA?

Why not then let the CRA be the final authority on all matters pertaining to the integrated resorts - as the casinos are within the premises? People should not be left wondering if approval from other authorities could be at odds with the CRA.

Perhaps it is time that the authorities stop treating Singaporeans like kids and let them decide for themselves what is good for them - within the bounds of the law. If they want to use a free bus ride to go to the casinos, why not?

The writer is editor-at-large at Today.

[Well said. ]

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