Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Perfect casino does exist - Press Holdings - 17th March 2010

S'pore's earliest casino advocate now cautions about their odds for survival

For the longest time, he agitated for a casino.

Now that the Republic's first casino is upon us, Singapore's earliest and staunchest casino advocate has apprehensions over how it is taking shape.

For almost three decades, Mr Ronald Tan lobbied the Government to set up a casino here. In 1981, he wrote his first letter to the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, proposing a restricted- access casino at Sentosa.

Now 65, the gaming and hospitality consultant, who recently addressed an Institute of Policy Studies roundtable on casinos, recounts ruefully: 'I received a phone call from an officer saying that Singapore was not ready for it.'

Leisure and gaming are his life's work

Over the last 35 years, Mr Ronald Tan has worked as a retail, leisure, hospitality and gaming industry consultant. Now 65, he has dabbled in many businesses, from military defence equipment to casinos, F&B consultancy to convenience stores.

In 1970, his link with casinos began when he represented the Genting Group in Singapore and sold travel packages from a 1,000 sq ft Golden Mile office.

He went on to advise gaming companies such as Australia's Federal Pacific Group and Britain's Mecca Leisure Group. He was involved in setting up many casinos, including the Wrest Point Hotel Casino in Tasmania, Star City in Sydney, Diamond Beach in Darwin, and the Christmas Island Casino.

Until recently, he was consultant to InterContinental Hotels, helping to rebrand hotels in the region. He presently consults for several hotel owners and is a regular speaker at regional casino conferences.

In 1981, he tried to save flailing standalone provision stores by overhauling them into self-service Econ Minimarts, designing everything from the chain's logo, jingle and house brands to centralised operations.

The alumnus of Kuala Lumpur's Royal Military College is now working on two books, on the future of hotels and sustainable gaming.

He is married to Serene, a housewife. They have three children - a lawyer, an engineer and an economist - and three grandchildren.

Q&A with gaming consultant Ronald Tan
Q: Do you think the current safeguards - like restrictions on ATMs and the $100 local admission - are sufficient? What else needs to be done?

A: Most of these measures are merely an appeasement to show steps are being taken to prevent wage earners here from losing their whole salary.

From my observation, if you really want to get serious, what has really worked is the UK Gaming Act, which is now widely followed in most casinos in Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

Admission to these casino clubs is by membership. To qualify, one must have a proposer and a seconder. Members must also undergo a stringent character and means test.

The main safeguard is that you have to first register as a club member and submit an application for betting, before you can even to start to play 24 hours later.

All members' data gets captured on the computer at the entrance and if they are found to have a criminal record or are blacklisted by other casinos, membership is immediately revoked.

With the latest technology, further state-of-the-art controls can be introduced here. The same way credit card companies appraise prospective card applicants can apply to granting membership. Using the help of a credit bureau and linkages to other casinos, most of the member's credit standing can be established. This rating is not for credit purposes but for the casino to monitor whether the member is over-gambling, or playing beyond his means.

Such pre-vetting also weeds out undesirable characters, such as those who are likely to wager money they cannot afford to lose, or loan sharks and underworld figures who are really there for money laundering purposes.

Q: Do you think our self-exclusion orders will work?

A: The exclusion order on its own is not watertight. You also need a character test that I mentioned earlier.

If a patron has just been dismissed from his job, or a man is having an affair and having to spend a lot of money on mistresses, it could be the beginning of a whole series of problems.

Generally, about 99 per cent of casino patrons are not affected by gambling, they go in for a good time and a laugh. But those with company or personal problems go in with an unstable state of mind and get burnt.

When you go into a casino with "fear money", which is either borrow or embezzled and which you know you've to replace, that's when you likely lose. People almost always are weakened by their senses of fear, stubbornness, disbelief or greed.

Taking it a step further, in Australian casinos, a team of trained psychologists walk around casinos to spot problem gamblers playing beyond their means. Once spotted, they are given counselling and if necessary, they can choose to ban themselves from the casino for a period of time.

Q: However, you've also warned against overdoing the legislation bit...

A: Yes, don't use a sledgehammer to kill an ant.

There tends to be a one-upmanship of councils here, where everyone wants to pile on his own agenda.

The gaming industry should be left alone to grow by itself. Gaming is about fun, not rigidity. We tend to overdo things.

Q: The Christian lobby here was vociferously against casinos. So how do you personally reconcile being a Christian and a casino consultant ?

A: The difference between me and rest of world is I gamble - smartly. I understand what goes on in a gambler's mind.

Two of my friends suffered heart attacks and died in casinos. One went to a Jakarta casino one Friday afternoon, played non-stop for three days till Sunday evening, and died on the Baccarat table in 1981. Another died in London playing roulette in the mid 70s. He had been losing so much that he suffered a reverse shock when the number he bet came up, he had a heart attack.

I also know of others who have committed suicide over the years. Because of such intimate knowledge, I developed this curiosity about the psychology of gambling and how it works. I also got to know many owners and operators of casinos and got to understand what motivates them to run casinos.

I feel with the knowledge I've gained over the years, I should broaden the understanding of the gaming industry here. It's wrong to bury my head in the sand like an ostrich.

If something is bad, the last thing I want to do is walk away from it. I should face it, confront it and make the best of it. Casinos and drugs are all around us. But I believe God has also chosen means and ways to contain it. (Credit: Singapore Press Holdings)

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