Place your bets!

Friday, 2 May 2014 00:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is indeed very unusual for a proposed business venture, however large, to go before the Legislature of a country for approval. Usually such investments are handled by the various Government agencies under the supervision of the regulators. If things go wrong, the investor goes to the judicial system for redress. To ask for legislative approval could only mean that the investors in the three projects concerned are seeking more assurance, and in this case one from the legislators themselves, which, a Government desperate for foreign investments, cannot but give. But the length we go to assure the investor of stability perhaps conveys the very opposite; the inherent volatility in the scheme of things here. After all, it is fairly obvious that given the needs of the tourist industry, the Government would be keen to have the investment, whatever the form, while the main Opposition being quite live to the economic realities of the world would not be too averse to the idea ‘let the robber barons come,’ and so on. Casino conundrum However from the various statements in Parliament as well as outside it appears that in our House of Representatives, from wall to wall, the so-called division in the House notwithstanding, people’s representatives stand as one against the idea of casinos. The Government says they are for a mixed development, but not casinos, while the Opposition is openly against them. Outside too, shrill voices denounced the suggestion most vehemently as a potential source of unmentionable vice. Even the fact that there are several large casinos operating in the country even now did not temper the high pitch of righteousness. The condemnation was so fierce that it is unthinkable that our MPs would dignify even a foreign city harbouring such dens of vice with a visit of their noble selves. Of course such an upright stand would be quite difficult to maintain for regular overseas travellers like our leaders, given that casinos in some form or the other operate in places ranging from the USA, Russia, London, Singapore and China to Australia! There are only a few countries, particularly among those with a sizeable tourist industry, without casinos today. In places like the famed Las Vegas, they offer entertainment for the entire family and it is certainly not only gambling. Gaming industry in perspective To put the gaming industry in perspective, in 2011 Bloomberg estimated that the cumulated revenue of the major casino operating companies worldwide amounted to nearly $ 55 billion. These include the global earnings of titans in the field such as SJM Holdings, Las Vegas Sands and Caesars Entertainment. To us in Sri Lanka $ 55 billion will appear an incredible amount. Our entire GDP is about this figure. But there are several individuals in this world – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Carlos Helu, etc. – whose personal wealth is more than this. In the American stock market large gaming companies do not even figure in the top 100. For instance, the market capitalisation of Caesars Entertainment Corporation is estimated at about $ 2.6 billion. Apple (computers) which is currently the most capitalised is estimated at $ 475 billion. I am unaware of any situation where savvy investors like Warren Buffett or George Soros considered investing in gaming companies, although many in Sri Lanka seem to imagine that casinos are a sure path to financial heaven. Long history of gambling It is accepted that gambling if taken to an excess can bring financial ruin to a person. So can many other things. There were persons who lost all their wealth doing politics in this country. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, this is not the case now! Moderation is called for in many things we do, particularly those considered leisure activities. Like the oldest profession, gambling too can claim a long history. Its origins are said to be divinatory, trying to work out the will of the gods. As in the case of alcohol, there is hardly a society that can claim to be free of the gambling instinct. Even though we banned horse racing a few decades ago, bookies thrive in this country on people betting on races taking place in faraway places like London. We have large-scale lotteries and there is hardly a work place here where a small ‘seettu’ is not in operation. In a ‘seettu’ it is important to win an early lot. ‘Booruwa,’ a card game generally played for stakes, is almost a national sport. There is an argument that casinos encourage vices like prostitution and even drugs. While these are hardly alien vices, there is a higher probability that by its very nature casino operations are conducive to other kinds of ‘entertainment’. We obviously lack the confidence in our law and order systems in ensuring compliance with the laws. This fear is not unfounded; after all some of the names associated with the casino establishment are intimately connected with the powers that be. And in this country that is all that matters! With those connections, they can act with impunity. It seems presently our Police can only harass the powerless or do ‘prabuaraksawa’ (VIP protection). However, as somebody argued in a recent article, the level of operations and the entry requirements of high-end casinos will make it an adventure beyond the reach of the vast majority of Sri Lankans. Even for those few who could afford to patronise the casinos there is no compulsion to do so. Going to a casino is entirely a customer’s choice. And choice is a fundamental when defining freedom. Basis of exceptionalism We little realise that in many ways our country operates on the basis that the people are of doubtful maturity and if given a choice will invariably act in a manner that will harm themselves. Not only in liquor, gambling and foods, but even in other customs we often observe a denial of choice. Of course these are all done in the interest of the people. If liquor licensing is more relaxed, drunkenness will go ballistic. If casinos come, people will simply commit financial hara-kiri. Despite the infinite attractions of the gentler sex of the country, foreign prostitutes will create a stampede. In all these things we argue on a basis of exceptionalism, things that never happened in other countries will happen here. In the past few years, we have seen vast improvements in our highways, including the addition of several freeways to the road network. Naturally, vehicles can move much faster now. It was reported that during the recent New Year holiday season, there were nearly 100 fatalities on our roads. Had we stayed with footpaths and muddy roads, we could surely avoid many accidents! It could be argued that we lack the maturity or the required civic sense to handle a motor vehicle on the road, so no roads is the answer! While our maturity when exercising a choice in most situations is questioned, in one aspect there is no challenge to our judgment. As our political leaders would have it, when choosing governments, the Sri Lankans display the highest intelligence. The wisdom so inherent in the manner they have placed their bets on successive leaders is plainly evident all around us. It is obvious that we know how to choose the governments that we deserve! (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)

Recent columns