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June 29, 2017

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Legalizing gambling must not be a gamble itself

Taiwan has seen some debate on whether casinos should be allowed in the country, as many see legalizing gambling as a quick fix for the poor economy and others a part of the long-term development of the tourism industry.

Residents of Matsu have already voted in favor of allowing casinos in the remote island county, the small population of which has hardly enjoyed the "economic miracle" that their compatriots on the Taiwan mainland have seen in the last few decades.

Now they want to turn their county into a casino resort, obviously trying to attract tourists from mainland China, which is just a few kilometers across the sea. An international group has already proposed a plan for such a resort project, pending central government approval.

Penghu was actually the first island county of Taiwan targeted by international developers for a casino project, but their residents struck down the plan in a referendum.

But if the Matsu project goes through and achieves significant revenues from the casino operations, Penghu may be tempted to reverse its decision. Such a domino effect is very possible — in fact we are already seeing it in action.

Earlier this week, Terry Gou, one of the richest tycoons in Taiwan, suggested that special casino zones be allowed in Northern Taiwan, and he particularly named Tamsui as a possible site.

This chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry — widely known internationally as Foxconn Electronics, maker of many parts for Apple products — said Taiwan should follow the example of Las Vegas and set up a special casino area that also includes convention and exhibition facilities, in order to boost the economy.

Premier Jiang Yi-huah has responded by saying that the present law would only allow casinos on outlying islands, and that a national consensus is needed before such zones can be possible on Taiwan proper.

Gambling is an issue that has always been loaded with moral overtones. Is gambling morally wrong? In the current debate, some critics agree that it is. And they have been quick to point out all the terrible consequences and crimes that may accompany gambling operations, whether legal or illegal, such as gambling addiction, prostitution, drugs, money laundering, underworld control and so forth.

These critics may have a point. Look at the mafia control in the early days of the Las Vegas casino industry. Look at Macau, which has often been described as a haven for Chinese officials laundering money.

But so far, government officials (such as Jiang), businesspeople (such as Gou), and casino supporters (such as Matsu residents) have seldom touched on these issues. They are mostly likely aware of these issues, but their emphasis has always been on the benefits — how casinos can boost the tourism industry and the economy in general.

The government may not be interested in the moral issues, but if gambling is to be legalized, there must be careful planning, strict laws and tight control to prevent casinos from becoming a hub for criminal activities.

The government must not take it lightly. Legalizing gambling must not be a gamble itself. It must not be seen as a short-term remedy for the economy; its long-term effect — economically and socially — has to be understood.

Taiwan's tourism industry could be completely overhauled — shifting its emphasis from the country's cultural aspects to a freewheeling economy.

And are we ready to be remembered as another Las Vegas or Macau, best known for casinos? Or do we still treasure an identity as a cultural island that has a large collection of Chinese art at the National Palace Museum and the best-loved bookstore chain in the Greater China area?

The two images could coexist, and it remains to be seen whether the government and the nation could maintain a balance.

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