22 November, 2022

The uncut pearl

In this issue, Gambling Insider looks at three of Asia’s most prominent gaming markets: the Philippines, Singapore and Macau. Exactly how well positioned is each market heading into 2023? We start in the Philippines...


It’s 2022 and Asia’s gaming landscape has shifted. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted what had been a well-established status quo: Macau was king. Its generated revenue of over US$29bn for 2019 not only reinforced its status as Asia’s gaming capital but – in terms of revenue at least – topped the gaming world. By contrast, the Las Vegas Strip, a destination etched in western minds as the accepted home of gambling, mustered just $6.6bn for the 2019 fiscal year. The difference was stark.

However, as with most industries, Asia’s gaming markets were in disarray when the pandemic struck. Revenue from online sources was a lifeline to operators worldwide. But in Asia, online gaming operations are largely unregulated at best – and outlawed at worst. This is especially true for Macau, where online gambling is illegal. So, in the absence of any online presence, the pandemic toppled Macau from its throne.

But as 2022 draws to a close in what is now a post-pandemic era, what next for Macau? And how does it compare to other Asian markets? Its rival markets in the Philippines and Singapore are recovering at pace, while Macau continues to struggle with the shackles of state-imposed restrictions on travel – never once hitting the heights of 2019.

What’s more, the factor that made Macau so great – its VIP segment – has all but crumbled following the demise of the region’s junket business. This is due to the imposition of new gaming laws, which we'll explore later in this article, as well as a slew of criminal scandals linked to now-former junket bosses. 

Now, Macau’s VIP business has been swallowed up by Singapore, which has expanded its status as a luxurious gaming destination. But while Singapore has claimed this new status as the VIP location of choice, it is somewhat hamstrung by the tight duopoly of Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands – one set to stand until 2030. The duo forked out a combined SGD$9bn (US$6.3bn) to ensure they remained the two exclusive land-based locations in Singapore.

It is in the Philippines where things get interesting. It could well be the Asian market with the most potential. Jason Ader, CEO of 26 Capital Acquisition Corp, has a vested interest in the company that owns the Okada Manila property (more on this later) and expects business to boom in the coming years. He said: “I’m certain the Philippines will become a bigger market and continue to grow over the next five years. I think, in five years, it could double the size it is today.”


As in any gaming market, the role of the regulator is vital. In the case of the Philippines, regulatory responsibility lies with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (PAGCOR). Its role as a regulator has often made the news of late, having played a significant legal part in Universal Entertainment’s reclamation of the Okada Manila Casino & Resort from Kazuo Okada. 

What’s less known, though, is that PAGCOR’s role as an operator is just as – if not more – substantial as its regulatory role. The body operates 38 of the Philippines’ 51 casinos (the Okada Manila isn’t one of them) and is a vital part of the country’s land-based industry. August 2022 saw PAGCOR appoint a new CEO and Chairman when Alejandro Tengco came in to replace Andrea Domingo. And with a new CEO come new issues to address – chiefly for Tengco, a decision. PAGCOR must decide if it is a regulator or an operator – it cannot be both. Tengco was questioned on the matter by Congressman Rufus Rodriguez at the Philippine House of Representatives’ Congress on Appropriations.

Rodriguez asked: “It is a conflict of interest that the same corporation will regulate a business, an operation, wherein they are also operating. In other words, there can be no level playing field. Would you agree it is high time for a bill that would create the casino regulatory authority?” 

Tengco responded: “I believe we need to distinguish between a regulator and an operator. The best way is for us to study this immediately and come up with a decision on the matter. Even the secretary of finance is encouraging PAGCOR to let go of the operations of the more-or-less 40 casinos they’re operating for us to draw the line on whether we should be either one. A decision may be in favour of, let’s say, privatising the casinos. We will be focusing on regulation. We will be submitting a report on what will be our final decision on the matter.” 

Tengco’s point of view is telling; should PAGCOR choose the route of regulation, its 38 casinos may become up for grabs as privately operated destinations, or become the property of a newly created government body. Should the path of privatisation be chosen, the Philippines market could become a gold mine, but a lot depends on the interest of investors. The Philippines’ mission, so to speak, would be to market itself to casino investors worldwide. If the Philippines can drive up interest in existing casino locations, the growth potential is exceptional.


The Philippines is not without its issues, though, particularly around its online gaming operations. First of all, the laws surrounding online gaming in the Philippines are quite vague. It is legal for gamblers to bet online, but they cannot do so through a locally based online operator. Philippines iGaming companies must market their services offshore; hence the title Philippine Offshore Gaming Operation (POGO) is bestowed upon them. An online operator, therefore, must strive for success overseas, but faces the very real problem that several potentially lucrative neighbouring markets have not yet legalised domestic iGaming.

A case in point is China. In recent months, POGOs that focus attention on Mainland China have faced heavy criticism, given iGaming’s illegality in the country. So much so that political tensions have surfaced between the Governments of China and the Philippines. Things have boiled over in recent weeks, with it first being reported that China had blacklisted all travel to the Philippines, according to the country’s Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri. The Chinese Government had growing concerns over the number of its citizens illegally immigrating to the Philippines to work for POGOs. The issue resulted in mass deportations from the Philippines, an ugly image for both countries. But, in what only created confusion, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said its Government had not blacklisted travel to the Philippines the following day.  The issue becomes compounded by PAGCOR’s staunch defence of POGOs. Releasing a statement on the banning of 175 illegal online operators, resulting in 40,000 workers being deported from the Philippines in September 2022, it said: “PAGCOR would like to clarify that the activities of said individuals are not in any way related to legitimate POGOs. The agency emphasises that any individual, group or entity which conducts online gambling without approval to operate from PAGCOR should not be categorised as a POGO.” 

Although strictly true, PAGCOR’s statement does little to solve the issue. The regulatory body also appears at odds with the Philippines Senate, which is looking to ban online operators from having a base in the Philippines after Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva submitted a bill to ban all POGOs from operating.

It would seem, then, that to maximise growth and better compete with Singapore and Macau, the Philippines must address its online gambling regulations to both attract investment and grow as a market. It is on the shoulders of PAGCOR that these decisions lie.Of course, PAGCOR must also take action to tackle (or regulate) online gambling locally. The online game e-sabong (online cockfighting) is very popular among Filipino gamers, and PAGCOR must either crack down on unregulated local iGaming or fight the Philippines' lawmakers to regulate it. Regulating online gambling would certainly give the Philippines a competitive edge over Singapore and Macau, where iGaming is outlawed. 

Ader echoed this argument: “[PAGCOR] needs to become more independent and remove any potential conflicts of interest, so that the regulatory environment is comparable to that of the best markets. Market role models for the Philippines would include places like Las Vegas, Nevada and New Jersey.”

Despite issues in the Philippines’ online space, it seems PAGCOR’s restructuring could help remedy these issues, or at least begin to. Besides, the scope for growth in the Philippines’ land-based sector is far less burdened with legal strife, and the country's government knows it.

Ader revealed: “I know for a fact the Philippines Government is prioritising growing its hospitality industry. Not just gaming, but lodging and leisure hospitality. I do think US investors will be very interested in what’s happening in the Philippines as they get to understand the market better.”


The Philippines we see today may be far different from the one we see in five years. It’s a market of potential, with a host of untapped resources and a potential boiling pot of perfect circumstances, which could make it the prime destination for gaming in Asia. Despite its regulatory issues, notably in the online sector, there are no long-term barriers restricting change. Take Singapore, its VIP market has now superseded Macau’s, but its constriction to the duopoly of Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands will hold it back. And if you think the Philippines’ legal and regulatory picture was problematic, its issues pale in significance when compared to Macau. Having to impose Mainland China’s strict zero-Covid policy, the province has struggled to return to the heights of 2019. Although it is slowly improving, the extent of its recovery is immeasurable and unstable in equal measure.  

As a result, the Philippines is the market with the greatest scope for regulatory change, and has the willingness to drive growth both from a governmental and business standpoint. It will just take time. But, as Ader has said, once investors take heed of the potential of the Philippines, its market will be set for a boom. And the actions of PAGCOR, both in terms of constitutional and regulatory change, may make this growth an actuality far sooner than it otherwise could be. 


It’s the story of the casino and the mogul. Kazuo Okada’s occupation of the Okada Manila rumbled on throughout the summer, after a five-year feud with the casino's managing operator, Universal Entertainment. In late August, though, Okada was finally ousted from the casino he had reclaimed, in what proved a dramatic, oftentimes physical drama.  

Okada founded Universal Entertainment, the parent company operating the Okada Manila resort & casino, in 2016. Manila’s casino destination is managed by Tiger Resort Leisure and Entertainment (TRLEI), a subsidiary of Tiger Resorts Asia (TRAL) – itself a subsidiary of Universal Entertainment. 

In 2017, accusations surfaced that Okada had misappropriated millions of dollars from Okada Holdings – his holdings company. Being a Co-Founder and Chairman could not save Okada from the scorn of his fellow board members, which included his son – Tomohiro Okada. Universal Entertainment’s board passed a vote of no confidence, and Okada was ejected from the company.  

At the time, Okada said Universal “[acted upon] baseless accusations of a grand conspiracy, perpetrated by detractors who betrayed [his] trust.” He was convinced his ejection was “illegal.” 

This didn’t stop the Philippines Court of Parañaque from issuing a warrant for Okada’s arrest in connection with three case files. These files alleged that Okada was the recipient of over US$3.1m in unauthorised compensation from TRLEI. 

However, in 2021 Okada was granted a Status Quo Ante Order (SQOA) from the Philippines’ Court of Appeal – a legal document ordering Okada’s reinstatement to Universal Entertainment’s board. Understandably, Universal was reluctant to reinstate Okada, given the claims of embezzlement and fraud against the mogul had not been settled. 

It seemed Okada could not abide by this, because in April 2022 Okada and a party of associates stormed the Okada Manila, removing existing TRLEI board members and workers from the premises. Universal still owned 99% of the casino, but it no longer had access to it. What was unfolding was a scene of anarchy, although one seemingly within the bounds of the law – a blow for PAGCOR and the legal integrity of the Philippines market. 

Now, Universal has the Okada Manila back after PAGCOR ordered Okada’s associates to be removed from the casino. The regulator believed the SQAO only applied to Okada, not his associates. Representatives of TRAL posed as casino workers and did what Okada did to them – reclaimed the casino.  But per the SQAO, Okada will (or must) remain on the board of Universal and TRLEI. This is until he sees his day in court at least. Having now returned to the Philippines and posted bail, Okada remains defiant as ever.