The pros and the cons

As an additional and very attractive tourism product, a casino is a highly positive contribution to the state and should be encouraged, but a full-scale, intensive and exhaustive study on the infrastructure and the added attractions, needs to be undertaken. – Photo by Javon Swaby/Pexels

ONE topic that has generated much interest and public debate of late has been the Sarawak government’s proposal (actually by the Minister of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Dato Sri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah) of converting the current Borneo Highlands Resort into a casino, with the aim of attracting more tourists to visit the state.

To be fair, it is a brilliant idea, albeit maybe ‘too little too late’; one of a few possible and plausible plans to make the best out of a fast-sinking ship which, if left to rot in the tropical jungle, would not be worth much except for whatever little valuable lumber that is left and the intrinsic land value at the top of the Crocker Range bordering Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The resort, of which land was alienated in September 1994 by the Sarawak government for the purpose of development for various purposes, has a vast area of 2,071 hectares and was supposed to be completed by September 1999; it was not even completed by 2020 – 21 years later.

It has now legally reverted to the state.

The actual golf resort, with the access road infrastructure and its lodgings, has been in operation sporadically throughout the past few years, but maintenance and occupancy rates have been dismal and disappointing to say the least. Various half-hearted attempts to revive its fortunes have failed rather miserably in recent times.

On March 20, 2023, Abdul Karim had floated the idea that a casino being developed at the Padawan Highlands’ resort location could not be ruled out as a means to both utilise the already-developed infrastructure and facilities available there, and as an additional tourism product for Sarawak.

Sarawak tourism stakeholders were receptive to the idea and they welcomed it, but were cautious to also state that it would be ‘a challenge based on past experience’ – as put by Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) Sarawak Chapter chairman John Teo, pointing out that there was an attempt back in the late 1990s to set up one in the Bario Highlands, during the tenure of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister.

Also very enthusiastic over the idea was Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) Sarawak Chapter chairman Oscar Choo, who said: “If developed properly by a renowned brand, casinos are built alongside hotels, restaurants, retail, convention facilities and recreational opportunities catering for several markets – and it draws premium players into the destination who have high spending powers.”

The naysayers, too, have quickly put in their protest, and a leading voice has come from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) Sarawak commissioner Jofri Jaraiee, who said: “A casino could lead to gambling addiction and the eventual collapse of families and society, and would do more harm than good. It is also ‘haram’ (forbidden) in Islam”.

Minister Abdul Karim was swift to counter: “PAS must remember that Sarawak is not for the Muslims only. Why don’t they make noise about the opening of 4D or Toto outlets? Those are also ‘haram’ for the Muslims!”

Abdul Karim was also quick to point out that for the redevelopment of the Borneo Highlands Resort, there would be an integrated resort with other amenities like a golf course and the possibility of making it into a ‘second Genting Highlands’.

If we view the idea of opening a casino based on attracting the tourists and the economic point of view, it is a brilliant move on the part of the government and as a means for the local tourism industry to reap its many benefits.

Let’s look at it objectively from the State’s Treasury angle: A ‘casino tax’ is 35 per cent of gross gaming revenue, which would definitely improve our gross domestic product (GDP). It would also generate a huge employment opportunity for at least up to 5,000 employees with salaries ranging from RM2,500 to above RM20,000 (senior management).

Other tourism-linked home-based and general businesses around the area would also benefit from the rub-off effects; tourist spots and small food-based eateries and other local arts and crafts practitioners would also feed into the ‘main attraction of the casino’.

It would not be an easy task, though, for the players to ensure the inflow of guests and tourists unless they are able to persuade the major airlines to increase their number of connections and landings into Kuching from hubs like Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

We would also need to strategise and bring on board a team of highly-experienced professionals in the fields of advertising and public relations, and also influence those already well-entrenched and with vested interests in the ‘junket packaged deals’ with other regional casinos around the region.

Promotional deals and packages with high-rollers, as well as attractive offers for other travel and tour agents, are essential in ensuring the success of such ‘a casino in the jungle’.

In simple words, we must have a unique selling proposition unlike anything that anyone else can offer, or have offered.

I would now like to offer my personal opinion on the ‘cons’ – why the idea of such a casino is not good for us as a society, a community and a state.

Although I do not personally gamble, other than having learned how to play poker, gin rummy, blackjack and one or two games just to have an idea on what they are all about (and also to try and understand the mind of how and why a gambler can get addicted to the game) I had, of course as a teenage boy, played the cards during Chinese New Year and dabbled in a bit of poker during my early working days.

It is actually a blessing that I was never good at any of this, so I never got into it at all!

Most gamblers would, from my own personal experience having known quite a few over the years, eventually get addicted – it is just a matter of time and degree.

With the addiction, will come a host of other negative behaviours: they would live just to gamble, be it the cards, ‘mahjong’, casino or the weekly 4D or Sports Toto draws.

Alcoholics are better off in a way – their bodies and their biological limits would force them to stop when they get drunk, and they just fall off to sleep or simply stop drinking. They also cannot drink their life savings away.

Gamblers cannot and will not – there are some who would lose and lose, and never know when to stop; until or unless their creditors turn off the line of credit or the ‘Ah Longs’ (loan sharks) come banging at their door.

Eventually, it would affect those around them – their families, their loved ones, their homes.

It is a downhill spiral leading mostly to ruin, unless they are able to stop in time.

That is the bleakest scenario that I can come up with, but it is bad enough to deter us as a community to try and ensure that such opportunities for ruin either do not exist, or they come by with some hindrance or legal limits.

Some places like the Singapore Casino make it difficult for locals to enter and play by imposing a surcharge/fee and ensuring entrance is by showing one’s international passport.

I am sure that with enough will and enforcement, it is possible to screen and limit what a patron at a casino is allowed to do and certain limits can be set for ‘locals’ if we deem at the start that our primary idea for setting up a casino is to attract tourists and not to ‘create a new class of gamblers from within our domestic market’.

Certainly, there is no harm at all for the curious tourists, be they from within or outside the country – it is the habitual and addicted gamblers that we should be on the lookout for.

Ideally, we should eventually get a mix of perhaps 75 per cent external tourists (from outside Kuching) and 25 per cent locals, and that with proper planning within the casino itself, there would be specific ‘International Rooms’ dedicated to the ‘high rollers’, and the general spaces for the casual limit-based tables for all the rest, as is typical for most reputable casinos worldwide.

So what is the verdict if I were to be asked frankly – for or against a casino?

As an additional and very attractive tourism product, a casino is a highly positive contribution to the state and should be encouraged, but we really need to do a full-scale, intensive and exhaustive study on the infrastructure and added attractions.

On the negative side, we need to also be fully aware of some of the spin-offs and repercussions to our society and our local communities, especially to those who currently dwell within close proximity of the proposed casino, so as to ensure that the ‘ugly face of gambling addiction’ should not be welcomed to even manage a toe-hold into our harmonious community.

Stay healthy, stay safe and be blessed always.

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