Debate on Remote Gambling Bill – MP Png Eng Huat

By MP for Hougang SMC, Png Eng Huat
[Delivered in Parliament on 7 Oct 2014]

Madam Speaker. The internet age has certainly change the way we live, work, and play in every sense. It has brought on a new world into our homes and our daily lives everywhere we go. It has moved our work online. It has moved our friends online. It has even moved our addictions online.

When problem gambling goes online, every internet-ready device is a potential betting shop or casino for gamblers to get their fix 24-7. An online gambler had this to say, “You don’t have to physically walk anywhere. You don’t have to take your purse out of your handbag or your wallet out of your back pocket” to gamble. [1]

Who would have thought that lives and families could be destroyed not at the brick-and-mortar casinos or the betting shops but right in the comfort of our own homes?

The Remote Gambling Bill is thus a welcome piece of legislation to address the harm and ills that remote gambling can inflict on the individual, the family and the society as a whole.

Madam, I have some concerns to highlight and clarifications to seek from the Minister on this Bill.

First, Part 2 of the Bill makes remote gambling an offence punishable by a fine not exceeding $5,000 or an imprisonment term not exceeding 6 months or both. While the penalty seems hefty enough to be a deterrent, I am not sure if punitive measure alone would make the offender think twice about gambling at remote sites again because the temptation is ever present.

Unlike a person who is addicted to brick-and-mortar gambling where there are some forms of structural control in placed such as the punter would need to be present at a betting shop and there are operating hours to observe, a person who is addicted to online gambling has none of the above restrictions.

Online gamblers can play anywhere anytime without anyone noticing them doing it at all. The internet age together with the mobile revolution has transformed online gambling into an all-powerful stimulant right in the palm of their hands thereby putting people of all ages at risk, regardless of gender, race or social standing.

Bearing in mind that persons at-risk are exposed to the temptation of remote gambling 24-7, could the Ministry consider making counselling and therapy sessions compulsory in lieu of the penalties imposed especially if the person is a first time offender? I am of the belief that education and counselling should work hand in hand with punitive measures so that online addictions can be adequately addressed and hopefully eradicated.

Second, Part 3 of the Bill makes it an offence to advertise and promote remote gambling and offenders will face a fine not exceeding $20,000.

Madam, the mobile revolution has opened up a world of opportunities for entrepreneurs and software developers to market their products and services. It has spawned millions of apps many of which are provided free but come with advertising. Would software developers be held liable for remote gambling advertisements that may appear in their free apps?

While clause 16(2)(a) provides a possible defence for app developers to prove that such advertisements appearing in their apps are accidental or incidental accompaniment, clause 16(2)(b) will weaken their defence because they are actually benefitting directly from the display of such advertisements especially when users click on them. Can app developers also claim clause 16(3) as a possible defence that they have no control over the nature or content of the communications or data in their apps?

And on the flip side, there is no way to prevent remote gambling service providers from commissioning fun and entertaining apps targeting at specific demographics at no charge but populated with remote gambling advertisements.

I seek clarification from the Minister on this issue as the intent of the Bill is certainly not to douse the entrepreneurial spirit or limit the imagination of our software developers in the mobile app industry.

Third, Part 5 of the Bill is perhaps the most worrying part of the legislation. It legalizes Exempt Operators to do what the Bill is supposed to prohibit in the first place.

A British-based consultant estimates remote gambling revenue here to hit above half a billion dollars this year.[2] A Hamburg-based company projects the online gambling market to grow by 7 to 10 per cent annually in the next few years with mobile gambling expected to reach over 40 per cent of total online gambling market by 2018.[3] Another report in 2013 puts the number of internet gambling sites at nearly 3,000 and the annual revenue it has generated at US$30 billion.[4]

All the above reports point to one conclusion – the exuberance for growth in the remote gambling industry is irresistible. It is thus not surprising that not-for-profit and state-run operators like Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club were reported to have indicated their desire to seek exemption even before this Bill comes up for second reading. [2]

Madam, Singapore Pools has about 300 betting outlets conveniently located in the commercial and HDB heartlands. As mentioned earlier in my speech, the physical locations and operating hours of these outlets do offer some form of control to prevent persons at-risk from being exposed to constant temptation. However, an Exempt Operator under this Bill would be able to put a betting outlet or a casino into every home and open it for business all year round, 24 hours a day. I note the Minister has stated that no casino-style online game will be allowed.

However, the convenience and danger of online remote gambling cannot be understated. A struggling addict said, “I felt defeated as the temptation was constant and relapse was just a click away.” [1]

Some may argue that without Exempt Operators, this Bill may drive online gamblers underground. Madam, everything will be driven underground the moment the Government outlaws it. It is the law of nature.

But unlike the physical world where the border is hard to secure 100 per cent and cash payment is hard to trace, this Government controls the conduit where all online activities and electronic payments flow through.

Part 4 of the Bill will prevent access to online remote gambling services and block payment transactions quite effectively. While it is not 100 per cent fool proof, the Bill does make it difficult for persons at-risk to gamble 24-7 online. So the question is why does the Bill want to make it easy for these people to gamble online again through the Exempt Operators?

Madam, we already have 4D, Toto, Singapore Sweep, Live Sports Betting, Phone Betting, MobileTote, TeleTote, and even Operator-Assisted Betting in addition to the two casinos operating round the clock in the city area. Do we need a legalized betting outlet in every home as well?

Finally, under Part 6 clause 40 of the Bill, the Minister can also exempt any person or class of persons from the provisions of this Act. I seek clarification from the Minister on who are the people who will qualify for the exemption.

In conclusion, this Bill must send the right message. Are we trying to address the harm and ills of remote gambling or the loss of revenue to unauthorized operators? We certainly cannot have it both ways because gambling addiction does not stop when Exempt Operators come in. What role can a potential Exempt Operator like Singapore Pools play to fight online gambling addiction when its sole mission listed on its website is to combat the loss of revenue to unauthorised gambling operators?

Madam, we already have enough legal avenues to gamble. While I support the principle of the Bill, I am of the opinion that Part 5 of the Bill should be re-examined and the Government should proceed with caution the provision for Exempt Operators. I therefore urge the Minister to commit the Bill to a Select Committee to specifically look into Part 5 of the Bill because it has ramifications beyond what we could anticipate.

Educating the public on responsible gambling is all good but at the end of the day this Bill will be responsible for putting a legal betting shop right in the palm of our hands. Are we taking gambling, responsible or not, too far?



[2] “Why the chips on down for online gambling” (ST, 13 Sep 2014)