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Treasure Islands

Will Taiwan ever manage to legalise casinos?

Friday, 29 May 2009 00:00
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Taiwan

This month the residents of Taiwan's Penghu Islands, a windswept and in places guano-spattered outcrop of rocky land part way between Taiwan and Mainland China, had been expected to vote in a referendum designed to take the community one step nearer to having a legal casino.

It looks now as if that poll will not take place. Under Taiwan's complex polling laws, 5% of the registered voters who took part in a previous, unrelated election were required to sign a petition in support of the casino referendum. That amounted to 3,521 people, and the local government says it's come up short.

If Taiwan's attempt at casino legalisation had been a boxing match, it would have been stopped on compassionate grounds many rounds ago. The locals on Penghu have been slugging it out with the central government in Taipei for the best part of two decades. The residents have already said yes to a casino at least once before, in 2003, when they voted by 57% to 43% in favour of the idea. Unfortunately at that time the turnout was only 21% according to local media reports. Taiwan's government, which has to pay attention to a vocal national anti-casino lobby, has said it would like the Penghu islanders to say 'yes' again and in greater numbers, before it can take the final step and sanction the proposal.

Hard slog

A whole generation of Penghu islanders has been born, grown up and emigrated in search of better economic opportunities since the local politicians first started campaigning to be allowed to develop a casino in order to kick-start the local economy. After 16 years of dogged campaigning, even if Penghu jumps through all the necessary electoral hoops, there is still no guarantee the community will actually be allowed to have its coveted gambling resort.

According to one Taiwanese observer, Kinmen, another of Taiwan's outlying islands only ten kilometres offshore from Mainland China, has emerged as a front runner in the Taiwan casino race, with ambitious plans by its local council to build a bridge to deliver Mainland tourists direct to its proposed resort.

The good news from the perspective of Penghu and London-listed AMZ Holdings, which is hanging on to a prime beach side plot on Penghu in expectation of a bumper pay day if it can team up with a rich partner, is that two Taiwan licences are potentially up for grabs.


Stop Start

Progress on Taiwan's casino gaming project has been painfully slow

Things often move slowly in Taiwan politics. A plan for casino gaming within Taiwan's borders—on Penghu—was first presented as far back as 1993, when Dr Stanley Ho was still the undisputed king of neighbouring Macau's casino industry and liberalisation of the Macau market wasn't even a flicker of a pipe dream. In the best case scenario Taiwan might finally see a casino built by 2013—a mere twenty years after the idea was first mooted.

"The Offshore Islands Development Act has received most media attention, but actually the government is using the Isolated Islands Construction Act to legalise casinos," says Simon Liu, Director of Business Development for Jumbo Technology, a leading Taiwanese supplier of gaming equipment to the domestic and international markets.

stopstartWhat sort of casino industry will Taiwan create? It's a long time since the heady days of the early Noughties when senior American gaming bosses came courting the Taiwan government regarding possible integrated resorts. At that time—before the ending of Dr Ho's Macau monopoly and before the Las Vegas operators had started their investment in Macau—Taiwan arguably had an exciting window of opportunity to create a world class and region-leading casino gaming sector. Whether in reality regional politics would have allowed Taiwan to market such an industry to Mainland Chinese visitors is a moot point. Only in July last year—for the first time since the end of China's civil war in 1949—did Beijing agree to direct flights between the Mainland and what it regards as a renegade province.

Cross-straits harmony

The political mood music is certainly more encouraging then it has been for a long time when it comes to the possibility of bringing in Mainland tourists to Taiwan for casino gaming. Relations between China and Taiwan have thawed considerably since President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in March last year in place of the pro-independence hard liner Chen Shui-bian. President Chen's policy position appeared essentially to be to set his face against any overture Beijing was inclined to make—from a gift of giant pandas to bilateral talks on trade.

The fact that President Ma is leader of the Kuomintang (KMT)—the Nationalist Party of China historically most opposed to the People's Republic of China—appears paradoxically to give him more wiggle room than his predecessor when negotiating with Beijing. This is probably because as the heir to Chiang Kai-shek's political legacy President Ma has less to prove to the public regarding his commitment to Taiwan as a going concern.

President Ma has hit a few bumps in the road recently in his rapprochement with Beijing, but he has a thumping parliamentary majority. The casino plan is unlikely therefore to be derailed by the threat of individual MPs or even blocs of MPs defying the government whip on the issue.


Singapore Style

Taiwan reportedly admires the Lion City's approach to casino development

According to Simon Liu of Jumbo Technology, the Taiwan government has gone on record indicating it admires the way Singapore went about setting up a casino gaming market. That approval relates both to the limited number of licences issued by Singapore, and the way the Lion City initiated an internationally competitive tender process.

"Taiwan wants to follow the tendering model of Singapore because they think this is very efficient and fair to all investors looking at involvement in Taiwan," explains Mr Liu.

Taiwan's approach has some superficial parallels with Singapore—such as the fact that only two licences will be granted, and that Taiwan has said it wants to invite bids from internationally proven operators. The two markets are also likely to have a similar annual turnover. Singapore is reportedly working on the assumption of a US$2 billion market annually.

Taiwan's Council for Economic Planning and Development said earlier this year it thought a domestic casino industry could generate annual revenues of NTD100 billion (US$3 billion) though this is considered extremely optimistic by industry analysts.

Mr Liu says local analysts think domestic demand for casinos could generate similar revenues to Singapore.

Demand

"With Taiwan's [state] lottery, the average net revenue is about US$1 billion per year, and the sports lottery is about US$1.06 billion to US$1.1 billion. We also have electronic arcades. There are about 3,000 gaming arcades in Taiwan. It's a grey area, like the pachinko business [in Japan]. Taken together it means the yearly revenues from existing gaming in Taiwan already stand at about US$3.7 billion," says Mr Liu.

There are signs, though, that competing pressures created by Taiwan's often fractious parliamentary system could lead to political interference in the Taiwan projects, which risks hobbling the schemes.

The first of these political pressures is that the locations for the resorts—outlying islands—may have been chosen not necessarily on the basis of what's best for the industry, but in terms of what's least offensive to the anti-gaming campaigners within the country. The second is that the level of investment required—US$1 billion per resort—has arguably been set at a level more appropriate to pre-credit crunch capital markets than to current realities. A third is that the proposed tax rate—understood to be 50% of gross gaming revenue—appears based on a belief in political circles that demand for casino gaming is so elastic that it can withstand a heavy financial assault by the government on operators and on consumers. This may be unrealistic. Two rival casino destinations—Macau and Manila—are respectively only an hour and an hour and 15 minutes away by plane. A fourth potential stumbling block is that the licences will last for only ten years—a short operational life for such a massive investment.

Terms & conditions

"The government insists that each property should have US$1 billion capital investment, and each should provide 1,000 hotel rooms. Tax will be 50% on gross gaming revenues," says Mr Liu.

"The gaming floor should only be 5% of the resort's total floor area. The rest should be for hotels, shopping malls, convention centres," he adds.

"The Ministry of Transportation and Communications will issue two casino licences of ten years' duration each," says Mr Liu.

"The government says it expects two resorts will bring in up to five million visitors per year. Currently Penghu has only 160,000 visitors annually, so this seems like a difficult goal to reach. We believe, though, the schemes can generate 10,000 jobs for locals," says Mr Liu.


Five Golden Rules

Ways of guaranteeing success for a new casino jurisdiction

Harrah's, the US-based gaming operator, chose not to tender for entry into the Macau market following liberalisation there, but has been linked more recently (albeit on a speculative basis) with Taiwan.

Michael Chen, President, Asia, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., has in the past indicated some enthusiasm about the likely opportunities in Taiwan. His boss, Gary Loveman, Chairman and Chief Executive of Harrah's, said earlier this year the jurisdiction is "potentially a terrific market," although crucially he added it would depend on the levels of taxation.

Mr Chen includes attractive tax rates as one of five key elements in successful development of a new casino market.

"It is all about competing for the customer, says Mr Chen.

"There is great product all around the world. Your project has to be competitive with all the other products in the region. You have to make your market attractive from the get-go.

"The five rules for a successful gaming market are as follows: you need to have open access—anybody has to be able to go; you need to have an excellent location; you need to have tax rates—especially in this challenging environment—that invite investors; you need to have a progressive, predictable, regulatory environment, so that investors can have confidence about what they're getting themselves into; and you also need what I call a right-sized licensing paradigm," adds Mr Chen.

Access all areas

On the open access issue, Taiwan arguably scores middling marks. On the plus side, she has shown no inclination so far to go down the nanny state road by imposing the sort of foreigners-only conditions seen in all South Korean casinos save one. Mr Chen argues South Korea's casino industry has been ill served by such strictures, and he says it shows in the quality and financial performance of the properties in that market.

"The two largest foreigners-only casinos in the world—Atlantis in the Bahamas and Paradise Walker Hill near Seoul [South Korea]—do no more than US$250 million each per year, and yet they are in great markets. Paradise Walker Hill is only a couple of hours flight from Japan and China—both wonderful target markets," says Mr Chen.

The jury is still out, though, regarding Taiwan's short list of locations for casinos—the outlying islands of Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu. It smacks of political compromise. It allows the government to pay lip service to the idea of regional development (rather in the manner of South Korea's casino programme) while placing practical barriers to day-to-day access by domestic players, thereby possibly placating Taiwan's anti-gaming lobby.

That could have an impact on returns for the project. In the current challenging financial markets, capital spend has to be calibrated very carefully in relation to annual yield on earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), suggests Mr Chen of Harrah's.

"In the 'good old days' when investors might have been happy with a 15% EBITDA yield, a project like Walker Hill might have been a one billion dollar project. In today's market you might only be able to justify a US$400 million project," he explains.

"If you look at Kangwon Land [casino in South Korea] versus Paradise Walker Hill, it's an open access casino, but a pain in the butt to get to. Yet look at the numbers. It does four times the revenue of Walker Hill next door to Seoul. Kangwon Land is generating twice as many jobs and four times the tax revenue. Open access is critical," suggests Mr Chen.

Location, location, location

On Mr Chen's second point—excellent location—in general terms Taiwan arguably has some important strategic advantages. She has by regional standards a relatively strong domestic market—an affluent population of 23 million people with a proven love of gambling. Las Vegas Sands Corp. estimated that 15% of the US$230 million earned by Sands Macao in its first year of operation came from Taiwanese gamblers.

Just as Macau is a comfortable destination for Taiwanese gamblers in terms of language and culture, so Taiwan has all the cultural credentials necessary to make her casinos a home away from home for Mainland customers. That's provided a political accommodation can be reached between China and Taiwan to ensure delivery of the former's citizens to its resorts. The emotional and in some cases family and ancestral ties between the population of Taiwan and the people of the Mainland are generally more direct than those between Straits Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia and Mainland Chinese.

A question is which of Taiwan's competing communities stand to benefit from this cross-cultural connection? Mr Liu of Jumbo Technology says Kinmen has as strong or even stronger claims to host one or both of the proposed two resorts as does Penghu.

"If you compare them in terms of infrastructure—water supply, food supply, electricity and transport facilities such as airport facilities, Penghu is not really ready," says Mr Liu.

"Kinmen is nearer to being ready. So the local government [on Penghu] has some more work to do. From the point of view of the weather and scenery, are all four seasons suitable for travellers, or will they [the resorts] only be able to do business in the summer time because in the winter it's too windy?" he adds.

Penghu has certainly been singled out as having a particularly bracing and windy climate during the winter months. Kinmen is no tropical paradise either in the winter, but it does have the virtue of being only ten kilometres from the coast of southern China.

"Kinmen, is more likely to be considered than Penghu, though it's not confirmed yet," suggests Mr Liu.

"Kinmen is close to Xiamen in Fujian province. It's only ten kilometres offshore. The mayor of Kinmen has announced he would like to build a bridge from Kinmen to Xiamen. Xiamen is a very prosperous city in the southern part of China. This bridge is 95% confirmed as a project, but who will spend the money? Some say the Chinese government, others say the Taiwan government. The estimated cost of this bridge is US$120 million. If the bridge is built, visitors from Mainland China won't need to take a ferry. They will be able to drive there in 15 minutes," states Mr Liu.

"The number of tourists to Kinmen right now is around 400,000 per year. In 2016, if a casino resort is built, some estimates suggest the number of tourists could be tripled to 1.2 million," he adds.

Mr Chen of Harrah's says the longer the journey time to a casino the greater the disincentive to make frequent trips.

"Customers do not like to travel to get to a casino. It's a fact," he asserts.

"If you take Las Vegas as an example, if you live within an hour's drive you may go ten times a year. Make that a one-hour flight and the frequency drops to six times per year. Make it a two-hour flight and it goes down to three times per year. Make it a three-hour flight and it drops to once every four years. Location is critically important.

"Within a one hour travel radius of Macau, there are about 50 million people who are economically eligible to gamble. Las Vegas has about 40 million," he adds.

"In both jurisdictions, about 55% of visitors drive there. In Macau's case visitors from the Mainland drive to the border and then get a bus or a ferry. If you took those people out of the equation and you had only the 5% that fly into Macau or the 45% that fly into Las Vegas, I can guarantee you wouldn't see a project like The Venetian Macao or Caesars Palace Las Vegas.

Taxing time

On Mr Chen's third point, competitive tax rates, Taiwan looks set to score poorly compared to its nearest neighbours Macau and the Philippines. In Macau the tax on VIP and mass market play comes in at just under 40% of the gross, while in the Philippines it's 15% of the gross for the high roller market, and 25% of the gross for the 'grind' (i.e., mass market tables and slots), plus an additional 2% levy on the gross in each segment for "restoration of cultural heritage".

"Not every market can be large like Macau and Las Vegas, so it's critically important that the tax rates are set right," says Mr Chen.

"Here's an example of two markets in Europe. One is a 10% tax rate market and the other is a 92% tax rate market. Guess what's happening in Spain, capital crisis notwithstanding? We [Harrah's] are building the largest integrated resort in the whole of Europe—Caesars España. Why can we afford to do that? Because they [the Spanish] have great tax rates. We can afford to build more hotel rooms, more entertainment and more amenities such as golf courses etc. In Germany they have a 92% tax rate. If you've ever been to a casino in Germany it's not a fun experience. You'll be lucky if you can find a bathroom in the facility. Taxes have an impact on the quality of the project," he explains.

"People like us look very carefully at tax rates when we make our decisions."

Straight and level

On Mr Chen's fourth point for success—a predictable and stable regulatory environment—it's too early to tell how Taiwan will perform, suggests Mr Liu of Jumbo Technology.

"We really have to do more homework. We don't have a regulatory agent right now. We don't have government institutions; we don't have equipment-testing labs. We have no experience of the international gaming industry," he states.

Given the often-volatile nature of Taiwan's domestic politics, there must be some concern among potential investors that Taiwan's gaming industry could be a hostage to political fortune. Legalisation of an industry is not the same thing as liberalisation. Economic nationalism—of necessity so long a feature of Taiwan life—could remain an important factor in the development of a local casino sector.

Taiwan in this regard is a very different animal from Macau. The latter has been used to foreign as well as Chinese influences in trade and culture for more than four centuries. Taiwan, by contrast, has got used to doing things her own way, largely as a result of six decades of economic, political and cultural isolation caused by her estrangement from Mainland China.

There have been reports that Taiwan actively considered a barter deal with a native American tribal casino in Canada, whereby the tribe would be allowed to operate a casino in Taiwan in return for giving Taiwan access to oil produced on the tribe's lands. This might sound bizarre, but taken in the context of Taiwan's perennial outsider status internationally, it makes some sense. Taiwan may well be looking for practical benefits from allowing external investors access to its would-be casino market, beyond the mere provision of development capital. In that respect an external, symbolic partner such as a local government body in Mainland China, might make more political if not financial sense than, say, a Las Vegas operator. Such a scenario might not be too far fetched if Kinmen is chosen as a casino location and a bridge to the Mainland city of Xiamen is indeed built. Whether even President Ma and his healthy parliamentary majority could sell such a sensitive proposal to a prickly Taiwanese public is another matter.

Licence to thrill, not kill

The fifth characteristic identified by Mr Chen of Harrah's for a new casino market's success is what he terms the "right sized licensing paradigm". This sounds rather complicated, but it boils down to a simple principle. Don't issue too many licences.

"We would suggest that for every US$500 million of potential market, governments should give out one licence," says Mr Chen. By that reckoning, based on Mr Liu's suggested US$2 billion domestic valuation of a Taiwan casino industry, then Taiwan could have the potential for up to four casino licences.

"Not every market is going to be like Macau and Las Vegas and be worth US$7 billion to US$10 billion [annually]," explains Mr Chen.

"So what do you do with a market like Singapore that's worth US$1 billion to US$2 billion annually? What the government there said was 'We'll create a duopoly. We'll only give out two licences'," he explains.

"That meant two operators were allowed to share a US$1 billion to US$2 billion market. That allowed them to invest. As a result you have breathtaking investment amounting combined to about US$10 billion," he adds.

Given the currently bearish credit and investment markets, Taiwan may have to show some flexibility on its market access terms if it is to generate significant interest from overseas operators.

None of the major North American operators appear to have any cash to spare for new projects. They are already stretched—either by ambitious expansion in emerging and domestic markets (Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn and MGM MIRAGE in Macau and the US) or by the double whammy of heavy debt at home combined with a bearish domestic consumer market (Harrah's et al).

Two potential Asian players in a liberalised Taiwan market—Malaysia's Genting Group Berhad and Japan's ARUZE Corp., already have their hands full in Singapore and the Philippines respectively. In fact Genting also has a few fingers in the Philippines pie as well via a joint venture involving its subsidiary Star Cruises.


Culture Clash

Foreign investors may take time to understand Taiwan's gaming market

There are significant cultural as well as financial challenges for foreign operators interested in entering the Taiwan market. One is that Taiwan is quite an opaque business market even by comparison with Macau.

Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in Taiwan quickly becomes aware that the place already has a de facto casino market—it just goes by another name. This is the arcade trade referred to by Mr Liu of Jumbo Technology. Gaming arcades are all over Taiwan, as he suggests. Many of the arcades operate baccarat machines as well as slot games. Technically these machines are played for gift prizes, not cash, but it's an open secret among locals that the prizes can be exchanged for money, rather in the manner of pachinko arcades in Japan.

Local suppliers rule

The market to supply gaming machines to the Taiwan arcade sector is in turn sewn up by local manufacturers. Foreign suppliers have at least two major challenges in breaking in to this market. One is that for external, regulatory reasons they are extremely cautious about dabbling in a domestic arcade market that is at best opaque and at worst downright illegal. Another is that it is very hard to compete with the local suppliers on price. The latter generally do not have to spend time and money getting their machines internationally certified and therefore can significantly undercut the international brands on pricing. While it's possible that a new, legally sanctioned casino industry will demand international standards for its equipment, it is by no means certain that international manufacturers will be able to achieve the sort of market share and market penetration achieved in Macau. In Macau there was no domestic equipment industry prior to market liberalisation being announced in 2002.

This domination of the local equipment market by local suppliers has knock on effects for any foreign casino operators interested in setting up shop in Taiwan. The risk is that if those operators were to choose trusted external suppliers with whom they are familiar from other operations outside Taiwan, they could load the business with costs significantly higher than those faced by operators relying on local equipment, without guarantees that the premium product will be more popular among Taiwanese players.

Many key components inside the machines of leading global gaming equipment suppliers are sourced in Taiwan, which has a reputation for quality control and relative respect for copyright, as compared to Mainland China. If the foreign equipment suppliers were to start competing in the domestic Taiwanese market, it could create conflicts of interest of little benefit to either side.


Last Chance Saloon?

Taiwan has missed so many opportunities it may struggle to catch the regional competition

"In 2000 LVS, Harrah's and MGM MIRAGE visited Taiwan—a long time before Macau's investment. We had a chance at that time, but we lost the chance," says Simon Liu of Jumbo Technology.

"Some friends ask me to estimate when a casino will be built. I say 2013 to 2015. That's in around five years time. By then Entertainment City in Manila will have been operating for several years and Macau will have new venues online.

"This is all because of the inefficiency of the government. We can't just spend all our time dreaming about it. We have to put it into practice," he adds.

"If you're in Taiwan and you want to gamble, there are markets within relatively easy reach. A flight from Taiwan to Macau is about one hour and ten minutes. From Taiwan to Manila is one hour, 15 minutes," he points out.

"It will still take 30-40 minutes to get from Taiwan to Penghu, not including check in. So where will you choose to go? If I'm a gambler, I will go overseas, so I can combine a real vacation with a visit to a casino. Penghu is like gambling at home," adds Mr Liu.

Michael Chen of Harrah's says the ground rules for successful development of new casino markets are straightforward.

"Our recommendations to governments that want to invite in gaming to drive tourism are simple," he explains.

"Let the investors be the owners over time, if not right away; consider separating regulator from operator; and minimise the factors that inhibit the ability of the business to grow competitively in the market.

"Yes, the industry globally is currently in a crisis, but in the long term the future is bright. Asia is just at the beginning in terms of casino market growth."


Slow Train Coming

Taiwan's two decades of gaming reform

1993—The Penghu Development Commission sends representatives on a fact-finding tour to Manila in the Philippines for insight and information on how to set up a casino industry.

November 1993—The Taiwan authorities begin formal investigations into the feasibility of a domestic casino project.

1996—Taiwan's lower house of parliament drafts a bill to legalise casino gaming. The draft bill is sent to the executive upper house but is shelved following political deadlock.

2000—The Isolated Islands Construction Act is debated for the first time by Taiwan's parliament. The act includes a clause to allow gaming as an economic development option. The act is passed, but the casino clause is rejected.

2002—A second attempt at legalising casino gaming ends in political stalemate.

2003—Penghu holds its first local referendum on gaming. The proposal receives the support of 57% of those voting, although less than a quarter of the residents bother turning out. Nonetheless the local government uses the poll as the basis for talks with the central government on legalisation of gaming.

2004—15% of the US$230 million earned by Sands Macao in its first year of operation comes from Taiwanese gamblers, according to estimates from the casino's developer Las Vegas Sands Corp.

2005—The Taiwanese media reports that Sheldon Adelson, Chairman and Chief Executive of LVS, visits Taiwan to meet then president Chen Shui-bian to discuss the likelihood of casino legalisation on the island.

May 2005—A draft bill to legalise casino gaming runs out of parliamentary time reportedly because of a filibuster by anti-gaming MPs.

January 2009—The governing Kuomintang (KMT) uses its large parliamentary majority to push through by 71 votes to 26 the necessary preparatory law to legalise casino gaming. It relates not to the main island of Taiwan but to offshore islands, namely Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu.

Opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislators vote against the bill, citing concerns about debt, crime and environmental degradation.

Officials of Taiwan's Public Construction Commission state the country's legislature will need to amend another law called the Statute of Offshore Island Development before the legalisation of casino gaming in outlying islands can come into effect.

February 2009—Little Kinmen, also known as Lieyu, an islet township just west of Taiwan's outlying island of Kinmen, declares it will hold a referendum on casino gaming in April.

February 2009—Penghu County officials say they plan to hold a referendum on casino gaming in June this year.

May 2009—Penghu County officials cast doubt on the prospects of a referendum, saying an insufficient number of signatures had been collected from voters. Under Taiwan's Referendum Act, 5% of registered voters who took part in the county commissioner election—3,521 in Penghu's case—must sign a petition before the referendum to take place.

February 2010—Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications due to open international bids for casino resorts in Taiwan.

2013—Possible opening date for first Taiwan casino.

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