By Non-Constituency MP, Yee Jenn Jong
[Delivered in Parliament on 7 Oct 2014]
The Rise of Remote Gambling
Madam Speaker, online gambling is increasingly becoming a problem, both globally and in Singapore.
In 2013, a news article reported an online survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs which found that 3 in 10 out of 1,000 respondents had gambled online or through the mobile phone. The article estimated that the size of the remote gambling market in Singapore was $376 million. MHA had also estimated that the revenue of the global remote gambling industry was around US$35b in 2012.
A survey conducted in 2011 with Singapore residents by the National Council on Problem Gambling found that 10% of the respondents had gambled remotely in the preceding year, and those who did so said they often found themselves spending more time and money than they had intended to. With the wide penetration of the Internet and mobile phone here, and an increasingly technology savvy population, remote gambling will rise rapidly if left unchecked.
Singapore currently already has tough laws on gambling in the real-world physical form, but has lagged behind that of other countries in imposing legislation on remote gambling, at least until now. Hence, I support the government’s move to impose tough legalisations on remote gambling. Remote gamblers will now face fines and even jail terms, while those who facilitate remote gambling will be subjected to even heftier fines and up to 5 years in jail. Industry experts have said that we will have one of the toughest laws in the world against online gambling. While most countries would adopt one or two of the key measures to control online gambling, Singapore will adopt all three measures with the proposed regulation: ban advertisements, block access to such websites and block payments to and from gambling sites.
However, a worrying aspect of the Bill is that under Part 5, it provides for exemptions for Singapore-based not-for-profit operators with a proven track record of distributing moneys to public, social or charitable purposes in Singapore and with good compliance track record with applicable legal and regulatory requirements.
Our state-run operators, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club have already been quoted in the press as saying that they will apply for the exemption certificate once this Bill is passed into law. Last year, it was reported that Singapore Pools is looking to launch the first licensed gambling website that will be based in Singapore. The same report cited sources who said that Singapore Pools had already begun design for a website with online betting functions. In effect, this Bill will create a monopoly for legalised online gambling in Singapore for the existing operators.
Dangers of Gambling and Lessons We Have Learnt
Madam, while it is good to have only compliant not-for-profit organisations with charitable outlook to be considered for exemption, we must not forget that there are very real dangers of people and families that have been and will continue to be destroyed at our existing legalised casinos, turf club and betting outlets.
According to a British gambling consultancy, H2 Gambling Capital, Singaporeans are the second biggest gamblers in the world, and the average adult resident lost $1,189 in 2013. This ranks Singapore only behind Australia in terms of gambling losses per resident. Half of this amount was reportedly lost in casinos, with the other half going to other forms of gambling such as lotteries, non-casino gaming machines, betting, and offshore gaming websites.
While the rates of problem and pathological gambling across the board are still considered relatively low, a local study funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development has found that there has been an increase in the gambling participation rates among older adults aged 60 and above; this is consistent with other countries such as the UK and the US which have also found similar trends. What is worrying about the prevalence of gambling participation among older adults from the study is that none of those identified within the problem gambling and moderate risk groups in the study, were seeking professional help. As a result, while there are generally more people seeking help for gambling addiction, there still remains a significant group of people who do not do so, for various reasons such as being unaware of the problem, or the fear of being stigmatised, amongst others.
This is a cause for concern not just because this group of people are around retirement age, but also because of the dire consequences that could befall their families if the problem is not addressed in time.
When we legalised casinos in 2006, we enacted the Casino Control Act which had provisions aimed at protecting vulnerable persons and society at large from the potential harm of casino gambling. Yet we still saw individuals and families being destroyed by the scourge of addictive gambling. That resulted in amendments to the Bill 2 years ago to offer further safeguards.
I’d like to know what are the lessons learnt from the operations of our legalised gambling franchises that our authorities intend to incorporate to control the negative aspects of addictive gambling. This is especially so when remote gambling is so much more convenient for the gamblers.
While we are legislating remote gambling for the first time in Singapore, there are already some form of remote gambling by our two state-run gambling operators. Singapore Pools already allows phone betting and Singapore Turf Club’s MobileTote allows betting via mobile devices. Phone betting allows for the placement of lottery bets by following voice prompts and through data entry using the phone’s number pads. It also allows for Sports bets through speaking with a customer service representative. The MobileTote allows Telebet account holders to view raceday information and place their racing wagers on their mobile phones. Users of these services must first be registered with the gambling operators.
I trust that our authorities have been monitoring these existing forms of legalised remote gambling services. I’d like to know if we have examined the frequency of usage of these types of remote gambling, such as number of bets and amount of bets versus the traditional forms. Have we studied the betting patterns of those who use these remote gambling services to see if the services had led to an increase in the number and overall values of their betting? What is the size of the existing memberships of these services? The information could be helpful to determine the extent of the danger for legalising online gambling through exempted operators and if these two existing state-owned operators should be granted exempt-status. With the exemption provisions in this Bill, it could open the floodgates for these operators to be more aggressive in offering a wider range of services with greater convenience, which could inevitably result in more people becoming addicted to gambling.
Strong Verification and Controls Needed
With online gambling, one should logically first need to be registered with a login identity and to have financial details linked to the gaming operator to facilitate payment. If we have to go down the path of having exempt gambling operators, we will need a way to impose controls on the legalised gambling sites such as exclusion orders, voluntary self-exclusion and limits to gambling tied to financial abilities. With the current exercise to strengthen Singpass security with 2-level authentication, perhaps Singpass could be used as the means for authentication and financial background checks. At the very least, some form of strict authentication of the identity and background of online gamblers at the initial creation of their account is important. Those on state-funded welfare programmes can be automatically excluded as such information will be readily available about the person. Those already on casino exclusion orders and are bankrupt should also be automatically excluded. Known financial details could perhaps be used to determine gambling limits.
What forms of remote gambling will be allowed for the legalised exempt operators? I am glad to hear from the Minister that there will be no online casinos as casino games are potentially more addictive compared to other forms of gambling. It would have allowed a loophole to let Singapore residents gamble on casino games without the safeguards such as entry levies that physical casinos have.
Another issue that we may need to look at in the implementation of online gaming is live betting. With live betting, one can bet on sporting events as they happen, with odds changing by the minute as the game progresses. Gambling sites internationally have devised all sorts of creative live bets, such as the number of yellow cards in, say the first 20 minutes of the game. This can lead to more bets being placed on each sporting event and it also raises the risk for match fixing. Australia, which has laws regulating online gambling since 2001, moved last year to ban live betting and live odds on all sports event, with the exception of horse racing.  Their reasons, amongst others for this move were to control excessive gambling and to prevent the sporting values of games from being distorted by gambling. I hope live betting will also not be allowed in Singapore.
Commit Bill to a Select Committee
Madam Speaker, I understand a reason given for allowing exemptions is to allow enforcement through entities that we can better monitor. However, we need to tread this carefully as the ills of gambling are far reaching, as we have already seen from our experiences with the casinos and other forms of legalised gambling. There need to be constant monitoring of the effects of remote gambling and to restrict participation by vulnerable persons and to also restrict the type of gaming activities allowed.
While I support the broad principles of the Bill to ban remote gambling, I find that there are many unanswered questions regarding the exemption provisions. I fear that once we open the floodgates to have legalised remote gambling, we may end up with very high social costs and other unintended consequences in the future. Hence, I also ask that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee to examine the exemption provisions in detail to convince Singaporeans why exemptions are necessary and if so, how we can tighten our legislation to implement very strong safeguards.
 Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 607.
 Tsu S, et al., (2013). Estimating the prevalence of problem gambling among older adults in Singapore,. Elsevier., p. 610.
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