Last Friday the Government staked all its winnings of goodwill on one turn of pitch-and-toss and came a cropper. It ran out of the good fortune that had shadowed its every step since the defeat of the Tigers five years ago in May. The political gamble did not bust the government bank but clearly left [...]


Cut the casino crap, start talking nanotech


Last Friday the Government staked all its winnings of goodwill on one turn of pitch-and-toss and came a cropper. It ran out of the good fortune that had shadowed its every step since the defeat of the Tigers five years ago in May. The political gamble did not bust the government bank but clearly left its’ credibility dented. This time the expected numbers did not show up.

Against the consolidated petitioned prayer tendered by the Venerable Maha Nayakes of the three Nikayas and the heads of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters, the Catholic Bishops, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders, against the objections made by the opposition parties, against the defiant stand taken for once by two parties in the UPFA coalition — the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the National Freedom Alliance — the Government went ahead with the ‘casino’ bill enacting it not with the two-thirds majority it commands in the house but with only 109 votes, with even some of its own senior ministers and prominent MPs abstaining.

But the caravan, though with a lesser number of mules pulling it, rolls on comfortably through the scattered pack of toothless barking dogs, riding rough shod over every obstacle in its path, seeking that El Dorado which promises undreamt wealth, and the only hope that this nation can cling to is that it does not turn out to be an optical illusion born out of the rising scorch and heat of an arid land, a mirage held by a people searching for miracles.

But for the Government, is the reward worth the flutter that risked frittering the successes gained through the years? Is the antagonism earned at the expense of the intangible value of mass support assiduously cultivated and safeguarded worth the exercise? In one fell blow, the power and influence the Maha Nayakes assumed they had by historic right to advise and sway the decisions of kings, now lie eschewed in the dust. Public opinion, the sustainer of all democratically elected governments, now skulks in ruling eyes, scorned and shunned, with governing ears deaf to their voice of disapproval.

And transparency in government remains further camouflaged under a blanket of an ambiguous term purposely introduced into the controversial Act, namely, ‘associated facilities’ instead of the earlier word ‘casinos’. The euphemism to overcome the initial objection to casinos can now mean and cover anything from casinos to brothels to opium dens, or any other vice deemed profitable, enabling its operations to be conducted freely and legally in any of the three hotel complexes to be set up under the newly passed enactment. Though it is denied that casinos fall under the category of ‘associate facilities’, pray say, if not casinos, what then? Are libraries of learning or centres of meditation and conclaves of religious study the envisaged ‘associated facilities’ to be offered on the side to the jet setting high rollers as part and parcel of the international entertainment provided at its sensational best?

At the end of the day, the question must be asked. Are casinos worth the sham volleys of musket fire discharged to crown the land as another Macau?

It is also hard to believe that James Packer, one of the biggest players in the world's casino industry, would invest a penny of his money in a Colombo hotel if it lacked the magic of a casino.

It is also hard to believe that James Packer, one of the biggest players in the world’s casino industry, would invest a penny of his money in a Colombo hotel if it lacked the magic of a casino. He is not investing US$ 350 million or more than Rs. 400 billion to merely provide rooms to a few hundred tourists and employment to a few thousand locals and suffer million dollar losses.

Take the man’s background. James Packer was born with the proverbial silver spoon. He hails from a distinguished Australian family who built their solid wealth on mining, real estate, newspapers, television, and radio. His father built the Packer business and made it one of the top most media empires of the world. But upon his death when the mantle fell upon the 44-year-old James Packer, his first action was to sell the entire respectable and relatively profitable family business, lock stock and barrel, and move into the sleazy world of gambling and casinos. He gambled his entire inheritance on one major throw of dice: casinos. His intention was clear. He was out to make a fast buck and only casinos could sate his avarice. Would a man like him be satisfied with owning a 350 million dollar hotel in a small Indian Ocean island playing inn keeper to a handful of visitors. Without casinos, as Packer himself would say, no deal.
It is the spin of the wheel, the turn of the dice, the fall of the cards that have lured man from time immemorial to stake his pittance at the gambling tables with hope-fuelled dreams of instant riches.

The same spell binding seducer Hope, which had held him tantalized to believe that the next spin, the next throw, the next fall will turn his litany of losses into one mega jackpot strike that will reverse his run of bad luck and turn him overnight from a Jack to a King, also reveals its dark, devious and treacherous side when, at the zenith of expectations, it betrays its bewitched holder bringing him crashing down, money, dreams and all.

What is true of an individual so it is with a whole country, leading sages of old to denounce gambling, with all its concomitant evils, as a vice to be shunned. “Take the high road,” they have advised. “Plod not the path of the profligate, the short cut to certain doom,” they have warned.

Today this Government has set course on that path. That it has been able to bulldoze its way through the opposition clamour against casinos mainly based on moral and cultural grounds maybe partly due to the opposition’s own diluted version of morality. Neither the monks nor the opposition parties have condemned the casinos that already exist in the city today, from whose bosses they gladly receive alms and political donations respectively, without murmur. Throughout their vociferous protest studious care had been taken to exclude the present casinos from the ambit of their objections. They focused their moral sights only on the casinos to be, not on those that already are. If your moral code holds it as a sin to kill, your moral values cannot depend upon the number killed.

To them, violation of the principle held on moral grounds depended on size. But morality cannot be diluted. The principle cannot be compromised. It cannot depend on expediency, political or otherwise. To seek justice in a court of equity, the seeker must first come with clean hands. If the objection is based on the dimension of an activity and not on its morality, the arguments must move to another court.

Are casinos bad as they are made out to be? Will it introduce and increase prostitution in the country? Will it cause drugs to enter the market? But isn’t there prostitution already in Lanka? Aren’t hard drugs available? Or is it that the evils of casinos have been hammered home repeatedly into our conscience that it has now become an accepted truism and, thus brainwashed, to even question its validity has become almost a blasphemy? All three vices are not given free but are provided only at a very high price which only the super-rich can afford. And even if the casinos accompanying evils are true, cannot the industry be regulated, as they say it has been done in Singapore? Is there a silver lining we can find in the dark cloud of evil that prepares to engulf us?

These are questions raised for further discussion since all decisions so far have been taken on the plain of prejudice and conjecture contained in slogans. Had the objections focused more intently on the economic aspect of the casino invasion and the ten-year 100 per cent tax holiday in particular, the force of the argument against the establishment of Packer’s glossy gambling den would have been more potent. But, alas, the moralistic approach, diluted as it were, was easily foiled by a government regarded as the high priest of the nation’s temple of patriotism and defender of her chauvinistic faith.

Now let’s hear another voice, a seer’s voice of sanity, ringing not from the wilderness but from within the inner sanctum of the Cabinet itself, raising the question as to the wisdom of relying on the ruthless exploitation of man’s inherent vice born of life’s embedded craving as a means of finding a nation’s economic El Dorado, especially when other more profitable, more productive and more beneficial avenues are available to pursue.

Take a bow, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, the Science and Technology Minister who recently, before he voted in favour of the casino bill last week, called upon the Government to abandon its dependence on casino trade to lift the country out of the doldrums and instead focus its mind and energies on developing the vast untapped field of science, especially focusing on the newly emerging nano technology.
“The difference between the rich and poor nations is the technological gap,” Prof. Vitarana declared. “Nano technology would affect all types of industry in the future, be it the garment, rubber, tyros, activated carbon or electronics industry. Sri Lanka would not be able to compete with international products unless it adopted Nano technology.”

Sri Lanka had only 1.5 per cent of hi-tech manufactured products in its exports, while hi-tech component of exports from Japan was 85 per cent, South Korea 70 per cent, Singapore 60 per cent and Malaysia 50 per cent,” he said, adding. “Sri Lanka should leave behind its colonial legacy of being an exporter of raw materials and low value added products, and become instead an exporter of high value added (hi-tech) products.”

Ever since gaining independence, Lanka has been complacent to ride on the income received from tea, rubber and coconut, the labour intensive agricultural legacy which Britain left. Only after liberalisation of the economy, with demand rising for more foreign exchange, did the focus turn on the need to diversify into other sectors. Though attempts were made, the only significant diversification was the creation of the industry of garments.

And yet even in that field, what is it that really happened and still happens? All the machinery are imported, the raw materials are brought down, the design and patterns for the clothes needed are laid down by the importer and a Lankan women’s’ labour force, in slave like conditions, have merely to churn out clothes for the western market en masse. Instead of tea, it became T shirts and the Grown in Ceylon became the Made in Sri Lanka.

The most successful diversification of exports, however, has not been in the field of material goods but in the mass export of women as housemaids to the Middle East. Today it has topped the list as the main export of lanka with revenues topping Rs. 7 billion but is it our pride or is it our shame?

Lanka’s policy planners must take the direction shown by Prof. Vitharana. This country boasts of a high literacy rate of over 95 per cent. Its people are possessed with a high intelligence quotient. Lanka must strive to become the hub of emerging technology, as an exporter of high tech manufactured goods even as Japan did to transcend her condemned fate after the Second World War. And nanotech is the science of the future and we should climb aboard its wagon before it passes us by.

It is estimated that already there are more than 800 nanotech products publicly available, with new products entering the market at a rate of 3-4 per week. The technology is used to produce silver in food packaging, clothing, and disinfectants. It can also produce zinc oxide in sunscreens and cosmetics, surface coatings, paints and outdoor furniture varnishes. As a result of the technology bandages are being infused with silver nano particles to heal cuts faster. Cars are being manufactured with nano materials so they may need fewer metals and, with the resulting weight loss, less fuel to operate in the future. Video game consoles and personal computers may become cheaper, faster, and contain more memory thanks to nanotechnology. And the list is growing.

Packers may come and Packers may go. In fact there is nothing to stop James Packer, after enjoying to the fullest his tax-free ten-year holiday, from packing his gaming bags and flying off to some other distant desperate state to pitch his casinos. Lanka must not wait for the circus to move on. Instead it should prepare for the future based on long-term solid goals to become a major player in the techno trade. Rather than lay the red carpet for fly-by-night casinos, it should attract the world’s technological industry and see that its citizens are trained in the scientific field so that the nation emerges as a major producer and exporter of hi-tech products.

Lanka must stop being a cattle market with only its beef for sale. It must triumph the world with its richly rewarded intellect; not earn its livelihood with its poorly paid sweat. And, above all, it must not depend on gambler’s luck to dawn the nation’s prosperity or regain her self-respect.

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