Gambling, Charity and Worthy Causes

Dr Yuen Chung Kwong

A recent article http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2013/04/tote-board-donated-400m-gardens-bay/ discussed the financial contribution towards Gadens by the Bay from lottery and horse racing income. It is also useful to remember an even larger contribution from the same source towards Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay (link)

Because the Board is a revenue generation agency of the Treasury, the donations are in effect a form of government spending. Profitting from gambling and similar operations is often considered to be sinful, so that when governments collect tax revenues from gambling, the justification is usually that these can be used for charity and other worthy causes.

Public recreation facilities like parks and performing arts venues are not exactly charity, but they are undoubtedly worthy causes enjoying the favour of the public in the abstract sense at least. How the public show "favour" in the concrete senses is however worthy of further consideration.

First, if the public go to these facilities in large numbers and find enjoyment there, they are showing "favour". For most people, such enjoyment lies in the walking about and photo opportunities these facilities provide, but other facilies, e.g., Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort. which were constructed without using public money also provide such opportunities. To actually purchase tickets and experience the features that the facilities are designed to provide (e.g., opera/concert performances at the Esplanade, and Gardens by the Bay's plant dome and sky way), one would need to be at certain income levels; I would guess this to be a minority of Singaporeans.

Second, if the availability of these facilities generate good will among the public, they would help to increase voter favour towards the government. However, for the reasons described above, the impact on this front might be very limited.

When foreign visitors come to Singapore, they are often impressed by the ability of the Government to undertake large projects like Esplanade, Gardens by the Bay, Yale-NUS College, ASTAR research institutes, etc, quickly and boldly. In their home countries, any large projects require much budgeting, lobbying, public discussion, enviromental impact studies, persuasion of trade unions, regional/municipal authorities, etc, and take a long time to get off the ground, if ever. At the same time, some of the visitors might show a certain level of cynicism, that a government that can easily "get things done" would "do things" that get votes, hence it might enjoy an electoral advantage over opposition parties that have no such capabilities.

However, if Esplanade and Gardens by the Bay are used as examples in this context, I should think that such cynicism is misplaced.

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Dr Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.

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