(Delivered in Parliament on 7 November 2016)
Madam Speaker, I am speaking on this adjournment motion as a result of the debate that took place during the second reading of the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014. I noted in my speech then that terrestrial and online gambling are two very different realms that would require different approaches to address the problems associated with gambling.
To this end I would like to refer to a section of the speech made by the then Minister of Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Chun Sing on online gambling and I quote: This is an evolving challenge. It is a difficult challenge. We need to stay vigilant to stay ahead of the threat and the challenges. We need to stay ahead and be prepared to strengthen our safeguards as necessary proactively and creatively. And we need concerted efforts by all – individuals, family and society – to keep our eyes on this issue. And we need to make sure that our measures are multi-pronged – upstream, midstream and downstream (unquote).
During the last session of Parliament, I directed some supplementary questions at the current Minister of Social and Family Development about these multi-pronged measures that the Government had sought to introduce to check online gambling. The answers did not suggest any specific initiatives introduced by the Government since the debate on the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014 to tackle the online gambling realm any differently from terrestrial gambling, even though the Government has acknowledged that its methods of outreach between terrestrial and online gambling have to be different. So I would like to ask the Minister again, what new upstream, midstream and downstream measures has the Government instituted to prevent the scourge of online gambling since the passage of this Bill in 2014? One would have thought that it ought to have been imperative for the Government to go public with these new initiatives well before granting exemptions to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to offer online gambling services starting from October 2016.
Madam Speaker, the choice of the usage of the word scourge in my speech fulfils a specific purpose. Why do I call online gambling a scourge?
Impact of Online Gambling on the Young and Low Income
The American Psychiatric Association places pathological gambling in the same category as drug dependency and alcoholism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It says that gambling “activate(s) the brain reward system with effects similar to those of drugs of abuse” and that “gambling disorder symptoms resemble substance use disorders to a certain extent.”
Numerous academic studies have found that online gambling is more addictive than other types of gambling, and that online gamblers have higher rates of gambling addiction than traditional gamblers. The Internet has greatly increased the accessibility of gambling. A 2015 study in Spain found a significant increase in pathological gamblers two years after the legalisation of online gambling in that country. The problem was found to be especially serious among young people – online gambling has become the main form of pathological gambling among people below 26 years old in Spain.
These results are unsurprising, since millennials are more comfortable using Internet technologies than their older compatriots.
Online gambling has another dark side. Problem and pathological gamblers can place bets using their smart phones without their friends and family members even noticing, unlike when they visit the casinos or go to the Turf Club. This removes a very important informal safeguard against problem gambling.
An important part of addiction treatment is for the problem gambler to avoid putting himself in situations which could tempt him to lapse back to his bad habit, for example, by avoiding casinos, jackpot rooms or other physical locations where gambling is available. However, it would be impractical to expect a problem gambler to refrain from using his mobile phone or computer as these are needed for modern day work and personal communication.
A longitudinal study of gambling and problem gambling in the U.S. between 1999 and 2013 found that problem gambling affects the poor more than the rich. The prevalence of frequent gambling is highest in the poorest one third of respondents and those in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and it declines dramatically as socio-economic status increases. This could be because some in the lower income group are motivated to gamble in an attempt to improve their financial status.
Raising Revenue from Gambling
The most common reaction I have heard from Singaporeans to the news of the issuing of exempt operator licenses is that the Government just wants to “make more money”. While am sure the Minister will refute this accusation vigorously, the fact remains that a large part of legalised gambling revenue goes into the state’s coffers. Is providing for exempt operators a way to redirect gambling spending away from illegal overseas operators to local operators, which are owned by the Tote Board? If so, this only fuels public speculation that the Government simply wants a piece of the huge global internet gambling pie, and that this is a revenue-raising exercise done at the expense of Singaporeans’ welfare.
Some have argued that the Tote Board gives money to many charities, which help the vulnerable in our society. This is a morally questionable argument that is akin to saying that it is okay to harm some people in order to help others. Since problem gambling disproportionately affects the poor, collecting revenues from online gambling is in effect a regressive tax on the most vulnerable in our society.
Prohibition is the Best Way Forward
The Minister said that the Government looked at a similar exempt operator regime in Hong Kong and Norway and found that the problem gambling situation did not worsen. I am not sure what these studies were or what the exact findings were. I hope the Minister will be able to share the details of these studies for Singaporeans to examine.
Did these studies prove that having an exempt operator regime reduces gambling harm more than a complete prohibition of online gambling? If not, was the Government too eager to rush to exempt operators before more conclusive results are found?
Madam Speaker, we should not be gambling with the lives of Singaporean families.
In the aftermath of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) dialogue with the Government, it was reported the carve out created for exempt operators to legally provide online gambling facilities were based on studies relating to the social impact of gambling that the Government had documented, and its assessment of possible scenarios with and without the ‘valve’ of controlled exempt operator. The NCCS noted that the research on this area is still new. To this extent at the very least, the Government should publish its research in this area especially since the Government will reportedly be meeting up with NCCS leaders in three to six months time.
The Minister has argued that exempt operators provide an “outlet” for gamblers and allow the government to manage crime associated with gambling. The assumption behind this argument is that gamblers who were gambling on illegal overseas gambling websites will switch over to the exempt operators’ websites or apps.
Has the Government found any studies to show that people will actually switch over to exempt operators? More likely, local gambling apps that have a stamp of approval by the government will attract people who have previously never gambled online. It may include many young people who may not relish queuing up at Toto outlets or going to the races at the Turf Club, but may experiment with gambling for the first time from the privacy of their phones. The legalisation of online gambling will thus expand the gambling market, rather than provide a safe outlet for existing gamblers. Once started, online gambling, like soft drugs, could be a gateway to more serious gambling addictions.
A Fait Accompli?
In its meeting with the NCCS, it was reported that the Government told the NCCS that it was not sending conflicting signals with the partial lifting of the ban on online gambling because the exemptions had already been written into the Bill back in 2014.
It would appear these exemptions were written specifically with Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club in mind. A quick review the timeline of events is as follows:
October 2014: Remote Gambling Bill passed.
July 2015: Singapore Pools and STC apply for exemptions.
July 2015: Straits Times reports that Singapore Pools had hired OpenBet to replace its website with one that can offer sports betting, and the contract is estimated to be worth $10 million.
15 September 2016: Singapore Pools and STC were reported to be running final tests on their new online betting websites.
29 September 2016: The Government grants exemptions to Singapore Pools and STC.
25 October 2016: Singapore Pools launches new online betting website, although this was not widely reported in the mainstream media.
$10 million is no small sum. It would be a huge gamble to sink $10 million into a contract without knowing it would pay off. Yet more than one year before the exemptions were granted, Singapore Pools appeared to have done exactly that. In the eyes of the public, it would seem that the yearlong evaluation of the applications was conducted with one outcome in mind – to find a way for Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to carry out online gambling operations. Was the process meant to determine whether or not the applications should be approved, or to determine how they could be approved? To this end, will the Minister inform this house under what circumstances the Government will review the exemptions granted currently to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club and how it plans to review them in an on-going manner?
During the 2014 debate, I asked the Minister to put the Bill before a Select Committee so as to scrutinise the exemption clauses. This request was turned down as the House was told that the Government had already engaged in consultations. However, in its recent meeting with the NCCS, the government cited its consultations with social service leaders and religious representatives as justification for the exemptions. Was the NCCS part of the “religious representatives” consulted in drafting the Bill? Did they agree to the exemptions? If so, why have they changed their position and if not, why weren’t they consulted before?
While feedback through the government channels should not be discouraged, we should remember that they are not subject to the same degree of parliamentary scrutiny in terms of the range of opinions consulted and the extent of public scrutiny. On Bills that provoke as much controversy as this one, should we not take the extra step to establish relevant Select Committees to go over the implementation and provisions with a fine-tooth comb? In exchange for a bit more time, we gain the opportunity to deepen public engagement and generate greater support for our laws.
The Government says that there are safeguards in place to prevent gambling addicts from harming themselves and their families. These include self-exclusion and third party exclusion. However, self-exclusion is only practical for those who recognise that they have a problem. As for third party exclusion, a family member has to cross several difficult hurdles to get his or her loved one placed on the exclusion list. This includes being interviewed by a panel and having to show proof of the family member’s gambling addiction. The surreptitious nature of online gambling addiction means that such proof will be hard to obtain.
International studies have found that each problem gambler negatively impacts an average eight to 10 family members, colleagues and friends. Also, most problem gamblers do not seek help until they hit rock bottom – for example if they have wiped out all their family savings. These suggest that the numbers affected by problem gambling are much higher than official statistics show.
Unlike other vices like alcoholism and drug abuse, the costs associated with problem gambling are borne almost entirely by family members, who often end up paying off the debts of the gambler. The embarrassment associated with problem gambling means that the gamblers and their families rarely talk about their problems in public. Because of this, there is a tendency for policymakers to overlook the real social impact of problem gambling. As part of its on-going review of the exemptions, the Government should look into the implementing more stringent ‘circuit breakers’ – for example, tying expenditure and daily funding limits to an individual’s salary scale, deliberately set as a low percentage of one’s salary or removing the user-defined funding and expenditure limits. Separately, Singapore Pools and the Turf Club should be required to collect detailed statistics so that the Government and the public can better study the trends of problem gambling online. Anecdotally, many cases of loan sparking “runners” are linked to problem gambling. There should be better statistics gathered on such tragedies to better establish the extent of their links to problem gambling. This will enable a proper assessment of the impact of the exemptions on the rates of gambling and problem gambling.
We need to look further downstream to prevent gambling habits from taking root. Particular focus should be on young people. It would appear that many young men are introduced to the habit during their National Service days through army mates, or at their workplaces. More targeted public education is needed, especially among young people, if we are to prevent the scourge of gambling from spreading in our society.
The best safeguard is to lessen the avenues for Singaporeans to get introduced to gambling. Legalising online gambling is a step in the wrong direction.
To conclude Madam Speaker, there has been a glaring lack of clarity as to how the Government is making preparations to address the scourge of online gambling downstream, midstream and upstream in a directed and committed way. This is in spite of the Government open admission that the online gambling is, I quote, a “difficult challenge”. It would logically follow that the issue would demand significant attention from the authorities. However, one cannot help but to get the feeling that it is business as usual, and that online gambling is just another game to gamble on, or just another sport for the public to take a bet on. I am concerned that it is much more ominous than that.