By Tay Shi'an
THE imminent opening of Singapore's first casino has led to a last-minute scramble - not for rooms or attraction tickets, but for information on casino family exclusion orders (FEOs).
These are people whose families have problem gamblers whom they wish to bar from the casinos. Resorts World Sentosa announced yesterday that its casino will open on Sunday - the first day of Chinese New Year.
Given the sensitive nature of such orders and the fear of straining family ties, some families have been putting this off, thinking they had more time.
But now it seems that time has run out for some of them.
And for some families, the move to bar problem gamblers has sparked tension as well as tears, anger and even threats.
Mr Charles Lee, a senior counsellor at the Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre (FSC), said there has been a "marked jump" in the number of enquiries about FEOs in the past few weeks.
The FSC is the only one appointed by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) to handle FEO applications. It is also one of the organisations which helps to man the hotline on problem gambling.
While he could not provide exact figures, Mr Lee said: "We had more enquiries, especially in the last two weeks or so, when there were many newspaper articles about the casino opening."
But what many don't realise is that it takes at least a month to process an FEO application - provided everything goes smoothly.
He said: "People like to do last-minute applications.
"But they don't realise how long it takes or how detailed it is."
Added NCPG director Charlotte Beck: "Cases could sometimes take about six weeks from the time the application is made. This timing enables social workers to contact the family to support them and reduce the tensions."
Since FEOs were launched last April, 19 people have been barred under this order as of last month.
To apply for an FEO, applicants need to make an appointment and go to the FSC, where they will be interviewed.
The respondent - the family member they wish to take out the order against - will be contacted and asked to attend an interview at the FSC.
The FSC will then do a home visit, after which the counsellor will write and submit a report - typically 23 to 27 pages, excluding attachments like bank statements - to the NCPG secretariat.
A committee of assessors will decide on the application within 28 days.
The detailed process is meant to prevent frivolous or wilful applications.
The actual time-frame depends on how cooperative the respondents are, said Mr Lee.
Those who refuse to return calls, make appointments or fail to turn up on the day of the appointment are given a maximum of three to four weeks to respond.
Said Mr Lee: "We will tell them we've given them a chance to be heard. If they don't want to give their side of the matter, we will proceed with the application based on what the applicant said.
"Respondents must realise the interview is to their advantage.
"If they feel the FEO should not be granted, they should give their reasons and we will put them in the report."
Mr Lee said that interviews are sometimes emotionally charged.
He recalled at least two cases when the male respondents were very angry and verbally abusive towards the FSC staff.
He said: "It took a lot of tact, patience and calmness to get them to be cooperative."
Others get upset and cry during interviews. Some resort to emotional blackmail.
Mr Lee recounted a case last December where a woman in her 60s applied for an FEO against her son, who's in his 30s.
He threatened to kill himself if his mother stopped him from gambling.
Mr Lee said such traumatic encounters also lead to applicants feeling depressed and emotionally run-down.
That's why the FSC staff provide therapy, conflict management and counselling.
Mr Lee said there have been cases where family members, afraid of adverse reactions, do not inform the respondent about the application.
He added: "Do they think that when the order is served, the respondent won't find out? Sooner or later, he will know.
"That's why we encourage the applicant to discuss the application with and inform the respondent before we call. It's more of a shock if a stranger calls to tell them."
But there are also cases of problem gamblers who agree with their family members taking out the FEO against them.
Said Mr Lee: "They are the ones who realise gambling has affected their family and loved ones."
Mr Lee said open communication is more essential now that the casino is opening this weekend.
Even if families apply now, it will be too late to get an FEO before the casino opens.
So the families will either have to convince the problem gambler not to visit the casino or persuade him to bar himself by applying for a self-exclusion order.
This can be done online via the NCPG website (www.ncpg.org.sg) using the SingPass. It takes immediate effect.
Ms Beck said: "The NCPG would like to encourage family members to apply for family exclusions earlier for their loved ones, if they feel there is a need to do so."
For help or enquiries about exclusion orders Call the National Problem Gambling helpline at 1800-6668 668 or Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre at 65936489.
This article was first published in The New Paper.