10 Questions

10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Bordertown Gambling Mogul

Small outposts like this one in Bavet, Cambodia, are the Wild West of the global gambling industry.
July 24, 2017, 9:00am
Cambodia's version of the Strip. Las Vegas this isn't. Photo by Clay Gilliland / Wikimedia Commons

It's hard to imagine it today, but there was once a time when gambling was totally legal in the Indonesian capital. Jakarta's one-time governor Ali Sadikin used the proceeds from casinos, slot machines, and the lottery to finance infrastructure improvements. Ali Sadikin was obsessed with modernizing Jakarta, so much so that, according to legend, he once banned all becak from the city's streets, rounding up the bicycle rickshaws and throwing them into the Jakarta Bay.

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But then Ali Sadikin's replacement banned gambling in the city. By the 90s, Gen. Suharto, under pressure from Islamic groups who were mobilizing against all things haram, declared that all gambling was illegal in Indonesia.

But that doesn't mean Indonesians stopped working in the industry. The casinos may have moved abroad, shifting from the malls of Central Jakarta to the bordertowns of Cambodia and urban centers of the Philippines, but many of the men and women working behind the scenes are still citizens of Indonesia and Malaysia—two places where gambling is illegal.

By moving their operations overseas, these one-time casino kings were able to keep their businesses open while still following local laws and regulations. In Cambodia, gambling is legal. The patrons are from Thailand, Vietnam, and mainland China. But the staff and owners are often from Indonesia and Malaysia. They're people striking out on their own, moving overseas to try to make a fortune in places where regulations and laws are lax.

VICE reached out to a 27-year-old Indonesian man who moved abroad to chase his dream of one day working in the gambling industry. He dropped out of university to start his career in the Cambodian bordertown of Bavet, a wild frontier land version of Macau, before moving his operations to Manila, where the infrastructure is better, but the risks remain. He wished to remain anonymous, so we're only going to refer to him as "A.D." here.

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VICE: How did you first get involved in the gambling industry?
A.D.: It's been my childhood dream to be involved in the industry. To me, gambling is a game of true grit, strategy, and luck. To be able to make a contribution in expanding the gambling arena is truly a dream come true for me. My uncle has always been involved as a player and a small operator in the industry. I saw an opportunity to grow bigger than him, so I invited some friends to help with the capital.

But to do this you had to move overseas. What's life like in the bordertowns of Cambodia?
It's certainly filled with opportunity and adventure. We started operating in Bavet, Cambodia. Regulations around gambling were shady there, and there are a lot of malls and casinos in Cambodia owned by local military generals who rent their space to online gambling companies. We're considered part of these casinos' operations, so we pay rent to them, but we don't pay taxes. The cost is really low, we walk to our office every day, so there is no transportation costs. Meals are part of the operational costs. It's so much cheaper to set up a business in Bavet than in Jakarta.

But life in a bordertown can be challenging. Besides the casinos, Bavet is basically underdeveloped. The only forms of entertainment is karaoke or drinking. Drugs and prostitution are everywhere in Bavet, but shopping, restaurants, and normal nightlife are very limited, or totally non-existent. It's pretty boring.

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So we moved to Manila, which is better. It's a bustling cosmopolitan city that's comparable to Jakarta. But since everything is legal here, we need to pay a two percent tax to the government. Also, I really only speak Bahasa Indonesia, so the language barrier makes it difficult to expand my social circle. I miss my friends and girlfriend back home.

The Las Vegas Sun Casino in Bavet, Cambodia. Photo by Fumihiko Ueno

What's the work-life balance like when you're running a business abroad?
I had to be based in Bavet, and now I'm in Manila because my company is new. I insist on coming in every day to manage and monitor my staff. But in the future, I can see myself becoming more and more hands-off so I can start to earn a passive income from my business. Even now, I can travel back to Jakarta or anywhere else whenever I want to. There are no strict working hours and because my social circle is still small, I don't spend much money on an extravagant lifestyle. Most of what I earn goes into my savings or as an investment in other businesses.

What kinds of other businesses?
Maybe Bitcoin or something else that's new and pretty unregulated. This is where the big profit margins are. I also like to travel and expand my horizons, so I save for that.

What does your family think of your career? Are they upset you needed to leave the country?
My parents are very supportive of what I'm doing. My dad used to work in a nail factory, and he understands how difficult it is to earn a decent living in Jakarta. My mom is pretty nonchalant about it, as long as I stay out of trouble. My friends? Most of them don't care. Some are curious though. It has been difficult to find a partner who accepts me, but thankfully I am in a good relationship now.

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Is most of the industry ethnically Chinese?
Yeah, that's definitely the stereotype. But I see it changing as younger people enter the industry. Most of my staff in Manila are Indonesian Muslims. They work hard and I trust them. A lot of the big players in the industry are Muslim too.

What does the future look like?
There is an established hierarchy and it's difficult to compete or overtake established companies who laid their claims in the industry first. So there is definitely a ceiling here. There is no way to disrupt the industry as a newcomer. But even as just an agent you still earn substantial profits that you can invest in other business ventures.

But there's a lot of risk right?
There's always friction with the police. Even though we're legally operating here, we're still Indonesian citizens and most of our customers are other Indonesians, so there is always a chance of an investigation and arrest. I personally haven't had any problems, but some of the other Indonesians over here in Manila have been arrested when the try to go back home.

So then is this sustainable?
I like the risks and the challenges because I am still young. Right now, I just want to make as much as I can, for as long as I can. I aggressively save and I invest in other businesses, stocks, or properties.

Do you have any regrets about choosing such a difficult career?
I don't like living a life full of regrets, so no. Even if I do have some, I always try to move on and not think about it too much. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had finished college and had a normal job. My life would be so different. Not necessarily better, but still different. Gambling is a 'high risk, high reward' business. It's not for the weak-hearted.