Monday, December 19, 2005

Gambling in Singapore, Part One

I had previously written about the man credited with founding Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. He is a fascinating character. On the one hand, while Resident at Bencoolen in Sumatra, he refused to condemn the practices of cannibalism he noted, commenting that the man to be eaten usually loses consciousness quickly and suffers a quick death. But on the other, he refused under any circumstances to condone gambling in the new colony of Singapore. He left strict instructions with the 2nd resident, John Crawfurd, not to implement such a scheme, from whom came contrary mutterings. No sooner had Raffles left than had Mr. Crawfurd written to Calcutta (the HQ of the East India Company in Asia) for permission to bring back the practice. The debate, to me, has a familiar ring to anyone that has been reading the Straits Times in the past year and a half, discussing the pros and cons of the 'Integrated Resorts':
...Differing wholly on this question with Sir S. Raffles, it will be the more necessary that I offer a full explanation, a matter which I am enabled to accomplish with the more satisfaction, as I have already frankly explained my sentiments and dissent to himself in person.

12. The gaming licenses have been abolished by Sir S. Raffles under a belief that to license gaming was to encourage the vice, and that the revenue obtained at the expense of the morals of the people, and therefore unworthy of the character of the Government. If the actual circumstances of the case really warranted this interference, I should be heartily prepared to join the Lieutenant-Government of Fort Marlbro' in recommending the permanent abolition of the gaming license, but after a long and attentive consideration of this question I am inclined to come to a very different conclusion.

13. The passion for gaming pervades all ranks of the two principal classes of our population, the Chinese and the Malays, to a most unusual and extraordinary extent, and I am clearly of opinion that in the relation which we stand to them, and the slender opportunities which we possess of reforming their manners and habits, the propensity, as far as our influence is concerned, is incurable.
So Crawfurd here claims that Chinese (and Malays) are addicted to gambling, and that that cannot be changed certainly, I have not attended a mahjong game in either Hong Kong or Singapore that was not accompanied by a friendly wager (or more). He sounds not unlike opium taipan William Jardine here arguing that the vice of opium smoking is ineradicable in the Chinese character. There is a reason for this similarity, perhaps - both were Scotsmen that studied at the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in the late 18th century, and both started their careers as surgeons in the service of the British East India Company.

But whilst Jardine turned his talents to private trade, Crawfurd became an administrator instead, one of a most pragmatic nature. Speaking of pragmatism, the administrations of Singapore both past and present have always had to find a middle way between the idealism of men like Raffles, and the material practicality of men like Crawfurd. But let us continue:
14. If our population, even with the habits I have ascribed to it, were of a stationary nature, there might be fair hopes, with time and pains, to improve it, but the fact is, that by far the greater proportion of the people who are found here are not permanent inhabitants of the place, but individuals who make a temporary convenience of it for a few weeks, for a few months, or at most for a few years. To attempt the reformation of a people so circumstanced appears to me to be utterly hopeless.
The argument here that the local population were only there temporarily appears a facetious one today given that the city when Crawfurd was writing was only 4 years old. But it is similar to the one made by Montgomery Martin, who decried the 'migratory habits of the greater part of the Chinese population" in Hong Kong in 1844, just two years after that city's founding. To continue:
15. It is necessary, besides, to observe that the practice of gaming, especially in reference to the Chinese, is not a vice of the same character which Europeans are accustomed to contemplate it. It is in fact an amusement and recreation which the most industrious of them are accustomed to resort to.

16. Having few holidays and scarcely any amusements besides, they consider being debarred from gaming as a privation and a vilence in some mesaure offered to their habits and manners.
How incredibly magnanimous then of Mr. Crawfurd!
17. It is true, indeed, that gaming is proscribed by their code of laws. The projibition in this case however seems a dead letter, and perhaps sacrecely more valid than that interdiction of foreign trade and emigration, to the disregard of which we owe at this very Settlement one of the principal branches of our trade and the most numerous and industrious class of our population.
In other words - yes, the Chinese prohibit gambling too. But the 19th century Chinese code also strictly forbade Chinese from leaving China, which the ones in Singapore had obviously already done. Crawfurd also obviously preferred Chinese laborers to other races, setting the scene for the mass importation of Chinese labor to Malaya throughout the 19th century.
18. The real effect which I am inclined to believe the prohibition of gaming must produce, while the propensity to indulge in play is so habitually strong, will be, that gaming instead of being publicly carried on will be pursued clandestinely, that instead of being subjected to a wholesome control, all restraint will be removed from it, that the price of conniving at the practice will always be a source of temptation and corruption to the inferior officers of the police, and that, finally, although perhaps less worthy of consideration, a large revenue will be very unnecessarily sacrificed for an imaginary benefit.
So here Crawfurd has kept his powder in reserve until the last. Because here he raises the spectre of illegal gambling, and the inability of Crawfurd's administration to control it, because of both demand and corruption. Having given all of his reasons, he finally makes clear why he wants the gaming licenses - it will be a significant contributor to government funds. So great, in fact, that during his administration gaming made up easily 20% or 25% of government revenue at a time when income taxes were unheard of, and Singapore a free port.

More recent Singapore governments, too has been one obsessed by the fear of corruption in its ranks, and the People's Action Party has acted firmly to ensure it from happening both with draconian laws and with very generous government salaries. When Lee Kwan-Yew was the Prime Minister, he famously said that he was the best-paid, and the poorest leader in Southeast Asia...

...but of course the main reason the Singapore government wants to develop Integrated Resorts at this time would be as a welcome source of new tourism dollars. Perhaps one day we shall regard them as no different, or worthy of comment, from the gaming halls of Mayfair in the heart of London! We shall see. Crawfurd's case, cunningly crafted, still largely holds true today for any city considering taking the plunge in adopting gaming as a legitimate practice.


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