No single right answer for whether or not to allow licensed gambling

Yesterday's debate on the Remote Gambling Bill shone the spotlight on a deep divide over how best to manage an addictive pursuit that no ban can eradicate, but which many consider immoral to condone.

While all 10 MPs who joined the debate supported the move to outlaw remote gambling and any attempt to promote it, four objected strenuously to a provision that allows the minister to issue a certificate of exemption to non- profit, Singapore-based gambling operators.

Three MPs from the Workers' Party (WP) went so far as to call for the Bill to be sent to a Select Committee for closer scrutiny of this section. A Select Committee is made up of MPs who can solicit public feedback, call witnesses, hold hearings and suggest changes to legislation. The last time a Bill went before such a committee was 10 years ago.

Joining them in making the case for a total ban on remote gambling was PAP MP Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC).

She argued passionately for it, saying: "The top reason is the signal we are sending as a government to the entire population, especially our young.

"It had been said that 40 per cent of online gamblers overestimate their wins and underestimate their losses. If indeed we so strongly believe that remote gambling is harmful and does no good to either people or nation, then are we legitimising the act of gambling and breeding its acceptance by legally providing for exempt licensed operators? Does gambling become more noble when operated by a licensed versus an unlicensed operator?"

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said the exemption was "problematic" as it could be read as saying remote gambling was okay if done through the correct channels.

WP's Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) challenged the conventional wisdom that a total ban would serve only to drive this difficult-to-eliminate vice underground, exacerbating law and order problems.

Mr Singh said: "In the absence of relevant data and information, I am not convinced that these concerns wholly apply to remote gambling precisely because gamblers can still get their fix at land-based outlets and some remote gambling options provided to gamblers by operators currently, and it is not as if gambling per se is being banned."

Rising to deliver the Government's response were Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran.

Mr Chan sought to reassure those who worry about the social costs of gambling, laying out plans to educate students of the risks, reach the vulnerable through online counselling and learn from safeguards in place elsewhere, such as the daily and monthly limits Norway has imposed on withdrawals for online gambling.

Mr Iswaran, on his part, issued a calm and clear defence of the Government's position, declaring that there was no contradiction between prohibiting online gambling and exempting licensed operators. Singapore has done so for the last five decades, since the 1960s when it granted exemptions to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club even as it dealt with triads and illegal syndicates.

"When you look at our experience, what we have done in the terrestrial gambling environment, we seek to maintain law and order, we have criminalised the range of activities. We have allowed a very tightly controlled valve, not because we wish to promote it, not because we condone it, but because it 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.

The question of whether or not to allow licensed gambling is one for which there is no single right answer. But given that public anxiety over this decades-old approach refuses to go away, the onus is on the Government to show that it can minimise the fallout through a combination of regulation, safeguards and public education on the potential dangers of a gambling habit.

This article was first published on Oct 8, 2014.
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