“All times are made of change, always taking on new qualities.” So said the prince of Portuguese poets some five hundred years ago (freely translated here), when the globalized world started to take shape. The transition may be smooth, almost unnoticeable, or irrupt fast and rough, even painfully for many. It can crack reasonable expectations and upend long-held certainties on short notice.
And insecurities have indeed spread these last couple of years. In the first 20 years post-handover, leaving aside the occasional and short-lived hiccup, Macau has ridden the big wave created by the gambling boom. The sky was the limit, so people believed – or behaved as if they did. No more. Doubts and missed opportunities keep piling up, feeding each other. Almost everyone looks less assured now.
Indeed, Covid struck unexpectedly, and its rampage was utterly unforeseeable. That alone would be enough to disrupt the best-laid plans and bury plenty of hopes. Yet, some 20 months into the pandemic crisis, it is almost as unclear as ever how we will manage the transition to a world where the virus has become endemic – no horizon, no defined path, no plausible timetable. It increasingly feels like we are going through a long and painful goodbye, an inescapable crash agonizingly watched in slow-motion.
No matter how well it may have served in the past, the more the extant approach lasts, the more it looks untenable. We would be wrong to discount people’s resilience. But it would be foolish to take it for granted. An uncertainty that draws out confidence and hope lingers on.
Then, the gambling concessions, bread-and-butter providers for so many and so long, are coming to an end in less than one year. At the best of times, any negotiations, if not just aiming to renovate the existing concessions, could open several cans – if not of the proverbial worms, at least of long-repressed desires and claims. Even ignoring other complicating factors, the current economic conditions alone make it challenging to carry sensible negotiations. What calculations, expectations, or plans can one hold on to under such doubtful conditions?
On a brighter note, one might argue that the potential gains of the activity are – and have proven to be – so attractive that many operators would be willing to risk their hand at the table anyway (if that is desirable is another matter). But no one will deny that these are far from ideal conditions to discuss and set the future course of our flagship industry.
Not to be undone, the international framework has also become more unstable. Regional tensions are rising in more than one spot, and the world trade system is shaken. Supply chains under stress, economic activity disruptions, inflation pressures, you name it, are coalescing into what we might politely define as challenging times for social stability and welfare.
With the occasional military threat lurking, international political strains are building up in the region and away. It all presages cracks in the global economic system and raises the potential for social and political disruption.
Indeed, as much as change is a constant, so is continuity in many ways. Nothing keeps the same forever or is ever built from naught (other than the Big Bang, that is). Continuity and change both are hallmarks of human endeavors. The hard part, in times like these, is to tell those two apart. As we face tough choices in uncertain waters, we may feel we have to cope with more than our fair share of unknowns. But, paraphrasing Camões again, the most perplexing, possibly, is that things do not seem to change the way they used to happen anymore.