'Sorry, I've got no money'

SINGAPORE - The taxi driver would spend all of his $2,000 monthly income at the casinos.

When that ran out, he would borrow from everyone - banks, friends, relatives and even loan sharks. And after his wife gave him the personal identification number for her ATM card, he drained her of her $5,000 savings on the sly over two months.

Finally, in June, Cindy (not her real name) applied for a family exclusion order against him.

She was one of the additional 160 people to do so from June to September this year.

As of Sept 30, 1,243 family exclusion orders have been issued since it was made available in April 2009.

Experts at the third Singapore Problem Gambling Conference yesterday said that more families are seeking help for family members who are problem gamblers.

But this does not mean that more problem gamblers exist - the overall probable problem gambling rate held stable at 1.2 per cent last year and 1.7 per cent in 2008.

Exclusion orders are just one of the ways of dealing with problem gamblers.

It is also important for family members to learn to say no to them, said Mr Charles Lee, programme director of Thye Hua Kwan Family Service Centre (Tanjong Pagar).

"It doesn't mean 'bochup' (Hokkien for don't care). Family members must continue to show care and concern towards the problem gambler and maintain the relationship.

"But when it comes to payment, it should be 'Sorry, I've got no money'. You have to be very firm about it," he said.

Helping causes harm

Family members often try to shield the problem gamblers from their creditors, but this worsens the situation, said Mr Lee.

He recalled a case of a man in his 30s, who left his elderly mother and older sister to deal with the loan sharks after he chalked up close to $30,000 in debts from online football betting.

He left the house whenever the moneylenders came and only returned after his family had settled his debts.

The family later turned to Mr Lee for counselling.

Mr Lee had this piece of advice: "Let the problem gambler face the barrage of scolding and fierce threats from the collectors so that he will associate the negative consequences with his borrowing."

Families of problem gamblers often have to deal with their own emotional conflict as well.

Ms Chong See Mun, senior social worker at Hougang Sheng Hong Family Service Centre, said: "The people who come to me are usually already thinking of divorce. But divorce is never simple. There are always the children to consider.

"They are sick and tired of solving the problem for the problem gambler. It is a vicious cycle." She is now handling about five problem gambling cases, which can involve bets at the casinos, horse racing and football.

She gets one to two of such cases every month.

She added: "Usually it's the families who approach us. The gamblers don't think they have a problem."

Most problem gamblers were gamblers even before the integrated resorts were here, Mr Lee said. For Cindy, her dates with Joe (not his real name), her husband of 10 years, had involved monthly gambling trips to Kuala Lumpur.

They have a son in Primary 3 and another in Kindergarten 1.

Said Cindy: "When the kids came, I told him to stop as I thought the money should be used on them. He agreed, but continued to go there with his friends."

Turned aggressive

Her husband's gambling escalated with the opening of casinos here.

He would ask for money on the pretext of paying for their flat's mortgage or their sons' school fees, but would gamble it away.

Every two or three nights, he would pack an overnight bag and stay out.

He turned aggressive and would push and shove over money.

He even wanted to sell their five-room flat for cash, Cindy recalled, adding that loan sharks once wrote "O$P$" on their door.

"I just couldn't stand it," said the housewife.

She approached the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) in June.

With the help of NCPG's Legal and Financial Advisory Services, she applied to her community development council for financial aid.

She has also taken out a personal protection order against her husband, who started visiting private gambling houses after being excluded from the casino. A divorce is in the process.

"He comes home to sleep at night, but I don't talk to him anymore," she said.

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