It is 4.30am on a Saturday and Raja*, 35, is sprawled on the Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade in Singapore, watching a YouTube clip on his mobile phone. He’s had a long night and there’s still some time to go – the migrant worker from Chennai in India is waiting for subway services to begin so he can return to his dormitory some 25km away.
Raja does not have much money on him, not after a night gambling and losing S$300 (US$221) at the nearby Marina Bay Sands casino. That amounts to nearly a fifth of his monthly salary.
“I will take the taxi back if I win money. If I don’t win, I will just sleep here. Many people do that,” Raja says, despite having to work in the morning at a door company.
Around Raja, at least 20 people have made themselves comfortable on the promenade, just a few steps from the glitzy Louis Vuitton floating boutique on the Marina Bay waters. Behind them, several of their counterparts – migrant workers from Bangladesh and India – are still trying their luck at the gambling tables in the casino.
In 2010, when Singapore made the controversial decision to open two integrated resorts with casinos, one at Marina Bay Sands and the other at Resorts World Sentosa, the authorities cited investment opportunities, job creation, and tourist dollars as justifications.
Marina Bay Sands, in particular, set out to woo affluent travellers and high spenders with its swanky casino, sky terrace and infinity pool perched atop three hotel towers, along with luxury boutiques and fine dining restaurants.
The government made it clear that the two casinos were primarily interested in tourists – and went out of its way to protect Singaporeans and permanent residents from falling prey to problem gambling by slapping a S$100 entrance levy per 24 hours, or a S$2,000 annual membership.
But few expected the casinos would unwittingly attract another group of punters: low-wage migrant workers who belong to the lowest strata of Singaporean society, doing jobs locals are unwilling to accept.
On Fridays and Saturdays, at about 10pm, groups of workers start streaming into the Marina Bay Sands casino. They stay until the small hours of the morning, playing their favourite games – sic bo (big small), where bets are placed on the possible outcomes of a roll of three dice, and roulette.
Most do not observe the casino’s smart-casual dress code, which disallows flip flops, slippers and casual short trousers. But it does not matter. Clad in Bermudas and sandals, the workers are allowed into the sprawling casino anyway.
They often start their night with a beverage – the casino serves soft drinks, tea, coffee, Milo and mineral water for free – while observing other players at the gaming tables.
After a while, they begin gambling. At the sic bo tables, the migrant workers usually start small with S$25 in chips and place S$5 bets on multiple number combinations. But they are prepared to spend more, for in their pockets are wads of S$50 notes.
In the section of the casino with the electronic roulette tables, the migrant workers settle comfortably into their seats. Punters are focused intently on a screen, selecting their winning numbers.
Chaki* is one worker who loves roulette, and 34 is his lucky number. The Indian national, who has been in Singapore for 11 years, came with eight friends and lost all the money he brought with him.
“I lost S$190 today, now I’m just waiting for my friends to finish,” the 32-year-old says.
He recalls how some friends got themselves so hooked on the casino and so deep in debt they had to borrow from unlicensed moneylenders who operate in the migrant community. Still, he enjoys his casino visits and has no intention of stopping his bimonthly visits.
“I like to come to the casino. There is always a chance to win money,” he says.
As of June this year, there were 975,800 migrant workers in Singapore, of whom 296,700 work in the construction sector. It was unknown how many visit the Marina Bay Sands casino each month, and the resort does not typically release such data.
A Marina Bay Sands spokesman said the resort is committed to responsible gambling, and trains casino staff to identify and assist patrons who display signs of problematic gambling behaviour.
The gambling habits of migrant workers have drawn the attention of employers and volunteers. AKM Mohsin, who runs Singapore’s only Bengali newspaper and works closely with the Bangladeshi community, said it is not uncommon to hear stories of workers who stopped sending money back to their home towns as they were mired in gambling debt.
“They are bored and frustrated, they have nothing to do and no entertainment. This is why they go gambling. When they win money, it makes them feel good,” he said.
As migrant workers are able to enter and exit the casinos freely, most of them start off as curious visitors. That is how 35-year-old Raja got introduced to the casino – he paid his first visit during Lunar New Year two years ago with some friends.
“We just looked but we didn’t play. After a few times, we learned how to play the game. After that, we started to bet,” he says.
Some companies have made it compulsory that their migrant workers sign up for voluntary self-exclusion with Singapore’s authorities, to ban themselves from entering the casinos.
Quality manager Zachary Chua of Hexacon Construction, which has about 300 migrant workers, said his company banned their employees from casinos when it discovered that some workers were chalking up heavy debts.
“We’ve had to help them internally by allocating a portion of their salary to repaying their debts,” Chua said. “It doesn’t make sense to send the workers home when you realise they are in debt – they still have to settle the loan anyway.”
Dr Tan Lai Yong, director of outreach and community engagement at the College of Alice and Peter Tan at the National University of Singapore, said workers may start going to the casinos as there were not that many activities available to them.
“It is both push and pull factors. Frankly, there are not many affordable places where a group of foreign workers can go to with their heads held high,” said Tan, who volunteers with HealthServe, a charity providing medical care and assistance to migrant workers.
“If a group of them go to a public swimming pool or a library, people may question their presence. But not at the casinos.”
Apart from giving them jobs and a place to stay, the society at large should also look out for the social needs of migrant workers, he said.
“Different people are attracted to different things, be it sports, poetry or music. If we, as a society, can try to include them in more activities, they have more recreation options. Otherwise, it is always easy to fall into vice activities,” said Tan, who has been encouraging interaction between Singaporeans and the migrant community through activities such as cooking sessions, poetry readings and cricket tournaments.
But for those who have made going to the casino a habit, the addiction might be hard to kick. Just a few steps away from Raja, another recent visitor to the casino is also watching YouTube videos on his phone – 31-year-old Bhaskar* from Tamil Nadu. He is also waiting for the first train.
Bhaskar lost S$250 in eight hours at the roulette tables. Two years of visiting the casino has left him S$15,000 poorer, according to his estimates. He earns about S$1,500 a month, and admits he does not have enough money.
But that has not stopped him from returning to the casino every fortnight in the hope of at least recouping his losses.
“I just want to win back my money,” he says. ■
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the migrant workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.