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Why Singapore casinos can't collect from China's high rollers

Julia Hollingsworth

Former Olympic gold medallist Kong Linghui is being sued in Hong Kong by the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore over his HK$2.55 million (US$329,000) gambling debt.

Edgar Su | Reuters

Each year, millions of mainlanders head to Macau, a special administrative zone of China and the only place in China where gambling is legal.

A small number of mainlanders - like Kong - also head to Singapore, where there are only two gambling resorts.

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But these casinos are facing difficulties attracting Chinese gamblers, and have even more issues than their Macau counterparts when it comes to recovering their debts.

How many mainlanders go to Singapore to gamble?

Last year, tourist arrivals and spending in the city state hit record highs, buoyed by the arrival of mainland Chinese visitors. Over 2.86 million stopped in Singapore in 2016, a 36 per cent increase on the previous year. That's still small fry compared to Macau, which sees about 20 million mainland gamblers each year.

How is Singapore targeting mainlanders who are keen to gamble?

Singapore legalised casino gambling a decade ago, but its two resorts have been struggling in recent years to attract mainland tourists. The casinos have been hit hard by Beijing's corruption crackdown and rival casinos popping up around Asia. The city state's strict gambling rules have also deterred mainland visitors.

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Beijing's crackdown on capital flight is also expected to cast an impact on the gambling business in the Lion City.

Singapore's two gambling resorts, the Marina Bay Sands – owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation – and locally-owned Resorts World Sentosa have both seen revenue decline, and have tried to get visitors to spend on non-gambling activities. At the lavish Marina Bay Sands, for instance, there's a 57-storey high, 150-metre rooftop infinity pool and an art museum.

The Singapore Tourism Board has also been intensifying marketing efforts in tier-one and two cities in China by partnering with the country's digital players like Tuniu and curating content on Singapore's tourist attractions for Chinese platforms, including WeChat and Dianping.

Why do Singapore's casinos have a problem recovering their debts?

Singapore casinos have more trouble getting gamblers to pay up than their Macau counterparts. In Macau, about 200 licensed junket operators provide credit to casino customers and collect the money they owe. But in Singapore, there are only three licensed operators, so gaming losses tend to fall on the casinos, who are then forced to use legal means to get their money back. According to Bloomberg figures, the number of lawsuits against gamblers who didn't cough up the cash grew from two in 2013 to 49 in 2014.

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But the problems don't stop there for Singapore's casinos. The city doesn't have a reciprocal enforcement of judgements with China, except for Hong Kong. So if a casino wants to sue a Chinese gambler, it's not enough just to obtain a judgement in a Singaporean court - it also needs to sue the gambler on the mainland.

Who are some of the other mainland gamblers in trouble with Singaporean casinos?

2012: Resorts World sues gambler Kuok Sio Kun in Singapore to recover US$1.8 million.

2015: Marina Bay Sands sues China For You Group chairman Chen Huaide over some US$2.8 million in debt.

2016: Marina Bay Sands sues Xiao Wenge, former chairman of DMG Entertainment, for unpaid debts worth about US$12 million.