By MP for Aljunied GRC, Pritam Singh
[Delivered in Parliament on 7 Oct 2014]
This Bill comes four years after the Singapore Academy of Law’s Law Reform Committee released a report on online gaming in Singapore in July 2010. The Law Reform paper noted that Singapore had begun to host gaming and gambling events with more frequency referring to the Betfair Asian Poker Tour, and through statutory exemptions to the Common Gaming Houses Act for organisers of private events to organize gambling activities in Singapore. In the words of the report, these developments suggested a more open state policy towards controlled and revenue-generating gambling activities, with similar implications for online gambling, even though the local Courts have generally taken a more conservative approach with regard to the public policy considerations about gambling.
This Bill will clarify the law on online gambling especially since the four key statutes that govern gambling in Singapore, namely, the Common Gaming Houses Act, the Betting Act, the Private Lotteries Act and the Betting and Sweepstakes Duties Act do not adequately address the legal regime surrounding online or remote gambling. With regard to online gambling till date, the Common Gaming Houses Act and the Betting Act are generally differentiated with the former dealing mainly with casino-style online gambling and the latter with sports-type online betting.
The Bill targets all forms of remote gambling activity – and it covers individuals and corporate entities from gamblers to betting agents and operators. The law will apply so long as part of the gambling activity takes place in Singapore, regardless of where the bet is placed or where the remote gambling operator is located. It also gives authorities the power to block payments between illegal gambling sites and financial institutions and block local access to gambling websites that facilitate or advertise remote gambling. All of these are very far-reaching measures.
The Bill’s Key Issue: Exemptions
Madam Speaker, a reading of the Bill in isolation sends a signal that the state subscribes to a restrictive and socially responsible attitude towards remote gambling. This is however only until the exemptions from clauses 26 to 30 to the Bill kick in and this aspect of the Bill is the focus of my speech.
The Minister can issue a certificate of exemption to any operator if it is in the public interest to do so. Clause 28 lists the conditions that the Minister may refer to when deciding to issue a certificate, although these are not exhaustive, and because the Minister has wide powers to add to, delete or modify the conditions governing the issuance of a certificate of exemption.
I have a few clarifications for the Minister in this regard. While I am supportive of a clear legal regime to deal with remote gambling, I am concerned that the prospect of a certificate of exemption issued to one or more local operators will increase the prospect of gambling in Singapore per se, as there is no clarity as yet on the means by which an operator would seek to contain and control the potential of remote gambling to cause harm to all Singaporeans not just to young persons and vulnerable persons. I will cover four main areas in my speech.
First – Is it inevitable that a total ban will cause remote gambling to go underground?
It was noteworthy that in the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) consultation exercise report on the regulation of remote gambling dated 6 March 2014– some stakeholders advocated a complete ban on remote gambling on the grounds that there were sufficient gambling outlets available to Singaporeans, and to prevent easy access to remote gambling especially among youth who are usually more tech-savvy and potentially at greater risk.
The often-heard argument about remote gambling is that a total ban will drive activities such as internet gambling underground. This is often is the same argument used for the regulation of other vices. 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. If so, wouldn’t that suggest that rather than gamblers going underground and operating illegally, most gamblers would just go to the existing land-based outlets such as authorised 4D/TOTO shops which are completely legal and regulated? Separately, even if some remote gambling does go underground, there is already some acknowledgement by the Minister that even with the passage of this Bill into law, there remain loopholes such as Virtual Private Networks or VPNs that can be set up to circumscribe the some restrictions in this Bill and gamblers could still get their fix through international online gambling sites. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform this House whether his Ministry will be open to look into the efficacy of a total ban on online gambling and not issue a certificate to any operator, especially since the public does not know how restrictive or liberal the remote gambling regime will be in practice, or whether it will increase the prospect of compulsive gambling in Singapore.
Second – Information on Remote Gambling in Singapore
The NCPG consultation exercise report on the regulation of remote gambling saw some stakeholders calling on the Government to commission more local research on remote gambling to study the nature and extent of remote gambling in Singapore. I am of the view that access to this information would better equip members for this debate, rather than to rely on analyst reports projections from third parties. I hope the Minister can share more information on remote gambling in this regard, for example, details on the numbers of the remote gamblers in Singapore, the frequency of their betting activities and preferred betting activities i.e. sports betting or conventional casino-styled gambling, so that parliament can ensure that the social safeguards with regard to remote gambling are set at an appropriate level.
Third – Remote Gambling exempt operators: Taxation and Proceeds?
In a USA Today editorial dated 25 Sep 2014, it was reported that the state of New Jersey was looking to the Courts to allow sports betting and the concern was that online sports betting would follow suit accordingly. This may not just mean bets on the eventual results, but live-betting as well (such as the number of red and yellow cards in soccer game for example), raising the prospect of attendant social ills such as increased sophistication in match-fixing for example. The fear is that if pressures begin to mount of the bottom-lines of exempt operators and even the state as a tax partner, there may well be a desensitization towards relaxed remote gambling restrictions as a solution. The Bill gives wide powers to the Minister to decline or revoke the issuance of a certificate and I hope the Minister can let this House know what measures are in place to ensure that such a slippery slope does not occur.
In addition, the NCPG consultation exercise on remote gambling proposed that the proceeds of remote gambling products offered by not-for-profit entities should go towards charitable and community causes. This point is made in clause 26 on the factors the Minister may consider before issuing a certificate of exemption. I would like to ask the Minister if the Ministry has determined what percentage of proceeds from remote gambling would go towards such causes and the operators respectively, and how remote gambling will be taxed. Will this figure will be made public in due course, and would an expectation of a percentage of proceeds be a criteria for the issuance of a certificate, in addition to the conditions specified in clause 28?
Fourth – Responsible Gaming Regulations for Remote Gambling
According to a speech made by the Minister at the 3rd Singapore Symposium on Casino Regulation and Crime last year, the total revenue of the global remote gambling industry in 2012 was estimated at US$35b, with an expected annual growth rate of about 9% – about five times the expected growth for conventional land-based gambling.
The Minister for Social and Family Development – in a reply to a parliamentary question on the implementation of responsible gaming measures adopted by the two Integrated Resorts in October 2013 with respect to the Casino Control (Responsible Gambling) Regulations which came into effect on 31st May 2013 – said that a casino operator must submit its responsible gambling programme to the authorities for prior approval with some measures including whether the operators had committed a dedicated committee to oversee responsible gambling efforts, set-up a pre-commitment facility for patrons to limit their gambling expenditures, and other broad measures such as responsible gambling ambassadors providing patrons with information and to assist those who display signs of anxiety or distress.
These measures have not been raised by this Bill but would conceivably be similarly raised in subsidiary legislation. However, as the drawing up of such legislation is not subject to parliamentary debate, it would be important for the Minister to flesh out the contours of responsible gaming regulations relevant to remote gambling in parliament, so that members can be assured that remote gambling options as offered by exempt operators do not end up making it more convenient to gamble as Singapore is already one of the most wired and connected countries in the world. There is also a legitimate concern that responsible gambling regulations specific to land-based gambling are not easily portable to the remote gambling realm precisely because land-based gambling outlets are viscerally better placed to introduce social checks and monitors, for example through entry levies. In view of the ubiquitous nature of remote gambling, the integrity and online security of gambler/gambling-related information and specifically, the greater difficulty to police and influence online activity, can the Minister please share what measures and regulations the Ministry deliberated upon to ensure that widespread online gambling does not begin to take root in Singapore because of online or remote mediums through regulated operators who have been issued a certificate of exemptions?
Separately, in its press release dated 29 Nov 2013 on proposals to restrict remote gambling, the Ministry stated that in addition to the changes promulgated in the Bill before the House today, the Ministry will also strengthen public education with regard to remote gambling and gambling simulation games. Can the Minister share how the Ministry intends to do so, how different its public education program would be for remote gamblers as opposed to the land-based gambling, and how it plans to gauge the effectiveness of such measures in view of the privacy afforded to a gambler by the Internet, and as iterated earlier, given the nature of the online medium in particular.
In conclusion Madam Speaker, a number of international studies warn how remote gambling activities can be more dangerous than conventional ones that are already present in Singapore. The British-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC) estimated that the remote gambling industry in Singapore will rake in US$416 million (S$526 million) in 2014, up by more than 50 per cent from the US$271.58 million in 2009. More worryingly, according to the Psychological Assessment Journal, it was reported that 40 per cent of online gamblers tend to overestimate their winnngs and underestimate their losses. Separately, NCPG statistics from 2011 showed that those who participated in online gambling were found to have the poorest self-control, gambling longer, more frequently, and spending more money than planned.
Mdm Speaker, the phrase, the devil is in the details is an often heard cliché. This Bill essentially sees the Government proposing a largely restrictive regime governing remote gambling which is a positive development in principle. To that end, I support the Bill. However, the Bill is also one where the details – of how the Government will ensure remote gambling through exempt operators will not lead to an increase incidence of gambling, especially among the vulnerable groups – are not sufficiently clear. As this is a significant aspect of the Bill with far reaching implications on gambling norms in Singapore, I ask the Minister to put this Bill before a Select Committee so parliament can receive additional feedback from Singaporeans, industry experts, and in particular, operators that would potentially qualify for a certificate of exemption, with a view to scrutinise clauses 26 to 30 of Bill more closely. Thank you.