THE new Remote Gambling Act that allows for a tightly regulated form of online gambling here does not relax Singapore's stance against the vice, said Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran yesterday.
Speaking in Parliament on the legislation, which was passed after a vigorous three-hour debate, he made it clear the Act "neither condones nor encourages gambling".
He also rejected calls from opposition MPs - Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong - for it to be sent to a Select Committee to gather more feedback. Ten Members of Parliament spoke in support of the broad intent of the new Act, which makes it illegal for gamblers to go online for a flutter on unauthorised websites from next year.
But a number of them expressed reservations over a section of the Act, which allows Singapore- based operators to apply for an online-gambling licence.
People's Action Party MPs Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) and Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said allowing any exemption sends a mixed signal.
Ms Phua urged Singapore to "take a bold step and reject gambling, whether remote or on-site". She said allowing an exempt operator seems to signal that "remote gambling is fine as long as it is under a state licence".
Mr Iswaran responded by emphasising that the new regime is "prohibitive" given that it introduces new laws to restrict nearly all forms of online gaming. It is also consistent with the country's approach towards terrestrial gambling.
Mr Iswaran explained how exemptions were granted to Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club in the 1960s when triads and underground gambling operators were looking to get a slice of the action.
"It (the exemption) is there as part of an ecosystem that seeks to minimise the law and order concerns, and social consequences that we are concerned about," he said. A complete ban will drive all activity underground and make it harder to mitigate these social concerns, he argued.
Under the new Act, applicants for an online gambling licence have to be based in Singapore, be not-for-profit, contribute to a social cause, and have a good compliance track record. Casino-style games or poker will be prohibited.
Individual gamblers may face up to six months' jail or a $5,000 fine - though Mr Iswaran said yesterday that these people are not so much the focus.
Rather, enforcement agencies will target unlawful operators and agents who spur illicit activity such as money-laundering or match-fixing. To protect those under 21 from getting hooked, anyone found to have lured an underage person into online gambling would face a mandatory fine of between $20,000 and $300,000, and jail of up to six years.
Meanwhile, access and payment to remote gambling websites will also be blocked. Internet service providers and financial institutions that fail to abide by a blocking order may face a fine of up to $20,000 each day for each website or transaction, up to a total of $500,000.
A unit has also been formed in the Ministry of Home Affairs to monitor gambling websites and payment mechanisms. Its blocking list will be reviewed and updated regularly. The Singapore Police Force will work with its global counterparts to provide and share evidence. Extradition of suspects to Singapore will also be possible.
Mr Iswaran conceded that the laws are not a "silver bullet", especially if pitted against an individual or operator determined to game the system. "It is a game of cat-and-mouse but the collective adoption of these blocking measures will be an ample signal to the vast majority, and it will significantly disrupt and impede the remote gambling activities of the few who may be recalcitrant."
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