SINGAPORE: Having a "managed space" for online gambling allows the Government to provide a "safer alternative" for those who wish to place bets online, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in an interview with Channel NewsAsia on Thursday (Oct 6).
Mr Tan was responding to a charge from the National Council of Churches (NCCS) that the Government is sending “confusing and conflicting signals” by legalising some forms of remote gambling provided by authorised operators.
Referring to the Government’s decision to exempt Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club from a ban on online betting, the NCCS said on Wednesday that it had difficulty accepting the Government’s rationale that “a complete ban would only serve to drive remote gambling underground, making it harder to detect”.
The opposition Worker’s Party, and People’s Action Party MP Denise Phua are among those who have spoken out against the move. Meanwhile, an online petition to stop the legalisation of online gambling has gathered more than 13,000 signatures as of Thursday.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Recently, the Government gave the green light for selected betting services from Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club to be offered online. However, in 2015, the Thye Hua Kwan Problem Gambling Recovery Centre and the National Addictions Management Service at the Institute of Mental Health actually saw a 60 per cent increase in the number of problem gambling cases, compared to three years before. This seems to contradict the purpose of the exempt operators regime, as the cases are not going down. So how is the Government planning to address the spike?
Tan Chuan-Jin: We work very closely with these partners. They support us in our effort to help individuals with problem gambling. What we’re encouraged by is in the last few years, we’ve put in a lot of effort in terms of raising awareness, so we do see many people come forward when they had previously not realised that they had problems with gambling. They now realise that they do have a problem, and they’re coming forward, in larger numbers. Families are coming forward; social groups are also doing that. That’s really useful because it allows us to actually address the problems that these individuals face and try to deal with it.
In fact, that’s exactly the challenge we’re facing. We’re very concerned with the increase in problem gambling, especially in the online space. It’s relatively new… and the biggest concern that we have is that it’s proliferating. It’s a global market; a lot of money is to be made, and the worst thing is that it’s unregulated and there are no safety measures in place.
Singapore being very connected to the Internet, and (with) people having smart devices of all sorts - there’s a very high risk that we’ll see more people going online to gamble. We see some of that happening, and there are two big concerns. One … a lot of it is unfortunately associated with crime, syndicated crime particularly. So for example, illegal gambling (in) 4D, TOTO, football, horse racing - you do pick up bookies, agents on the ground who collect monies, extend credit lines to individuals. And that’s worrisome, because not only do you have the social ills that come with gambling, there’s also the criminal element.
This is why, we decided two years ago, to table the Bill which is the Remote Gambling Act, which came into place in 2015. (It’s) basically putting in place a very robust set of laws - we’re going to ban sites actively, we’re going to ban channels of payment, we’ll criminalise online gaming. I wish that we could just stop there, and that that in and of itself will solve the problem. But unfortunately, we know the Internet - you can close down sites but new sites will set up, and sometimes even faster than you can close them down; there are also technology bypassers, for example, VPNs, proxy websites. So even with the passing of the laws in 2015, we’ve arrested 120 people who are associated with online gambling - even with the laws in place.
So we know that while we have a robust set of laws, bans and so on, it will not eradicate the problem. Singaporeans are there (online), and while they are there, it is unprotected space, which is why even the laws have an exemption for operators that can operate a very tightly managed safe space, so that those who, for whatever reason, still want to gamble online - there can be a safe environment where they can hopefully, gamble safely, and responsibly. But very tightly controlled, to make sure the measures are in place to protect them. So (we have adopted) a combination of robust laws, bans; a controlled space; as well as supported by an extensive network of support for individuals with problems; and also increasing education and awareness. That’s the way we feel that we can approach the issue of trying to manage the growth of these problems.
Q: You spoke about more people having access to these gambling sites online. There is a greater convenience and ease of access to remote gambling. Do you anticipate that this could cause a very different, unprecedented kind of gambling problem, and how will the Government manage this problem?
Tan Chuan-Jin: Exactly. This is why we are very deeply concerned. Online gambling, we think, will increase as the space grows, and it is… largely unregulated and unfiltered. Which is why we’ve put in place the laws, even with the exempt operator regime - very tight controls are put in place. For example, we don’t allow the operators to offer new products. The existing lottery - 4D, TOTO - betting on football, horse racing, F1 - it remains there. We’re not offering new types of products, because we’re not interested in making them more attractive. But at least, they provide an alternative. There’s also safety measures put in place, for example you can’t bet with your credit card, no credit line is being extended, you need to put in place for yourself before you’re allowed to actually participate, (there’s) screening as well before you sign on...
There’s two-factor authentication required. We also make sure that the existing exclusion regime continues, meaning that families can take steps to make sure that family members aren’t able to participate. Individuals can also do that. So this range of measures allows us to create a safer environment to manage that.
If we don’t have this environment, what it means that those who seek to bypass the sort of bans that are in place will then operate in a place that’s completely unfettered, and I think (that’s) quite dangerous, because they are exposed to criminal elements as well - over and above the social ills that come with gambling.
Q: Do you think that this access to online betting services will exacerbate the problem?
Tan Chuan-Jin: The problem exists today, with or without this managed space. Even with our bans and blocks, people find ways to go around it. We will continue to endeavour to increase the friction, but we know that that overall space is just growing, and given profile of Internet penetration in Singapore, there’s a very real risk that people who really do desire to be online to game, will find alternatives despite everything that we’ve done. So having a managed space, allows us at least to provide a safer alternative. I know that ideally we would prefer not to have this space at all. But I can’t wish that problem away, because this set of laws on its own - the bans and the blocks - will not be enough to prevent people from being there.
But if I had an alternative that may be controlled and tightly managed, I think we would perhaps allow a space who are seeking that online gaming experience to be in that space. At least we can manage that, and we can intervene in perhaps, a much more constructive way, where there are problems that begin to arise.
Q: How would you respond then, to the National Council of Churches’ assertion that - with the move to exempt Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club from the Remote Gambling Act - the Government is sending confusing and conflicting signals?
Tan Chuan-Jin: We had a chance to speak to them. There was a consultation in 2014 before the Bill was tabled in Parliament. Recently, I spoke to a number of different groups, including VWO (voluntary welfare organisation) groups, representatives from religious organisations - I fully understand their concerns, because they do need to explain to their followers about the position taken.
In fact, I share their concerns about problem gambling and the ills that come with it. I totally agree that we should not be supporting and encouraging gambling, so that part is very clear. So the question is how do you solve the problem that’s at hand? It’s a very real problem that we see today, which is - online gambling is there, and it is growing. And even with a fairly robust set of laws and bans and blocks, you will not completely eradicate the problem. How do we then deal with the remnants - those people who are still online, who unfortunately will be very exposed? We share the same concern - we want to look out for those individuals. Having a tightly controlled outlet, space, if you will, I think will allow us, in combination with the other measures put in place, to hopefully adequately, manage the problem.
It’s not going to eradicate the problem. It’s not as if with this exempted operator regime, plus the robust set of laws - it’s going to eradicate online gambling, and all the associated problems. Unfortunately, there will be people who will still seek alternative sites, but at least, I think this is one way we are taking to try to moderate the issue, to prevent it from growing more than it should, and hopefully over time to strengthen it more than we can.
Q: NCCS has raised concerns about how this move could increase risk of problem gambling. While there are safeguards, are these robust enough?
Tan Chuan-Jin: The reality that we face today is that there is a growing problem with online gambling. So we all agree, we need to deal with it. There are associated ills, one of course is social ills, but one of the areas we’re most concerned with is crime, because a lot of criminal elements are associated with illegal gambling online. How do we deal with it? So we have a robust set of laws which most people support. It puts in place blocks, it puts in place bans, it criminalises it, but we also know that because of the Internet space - unlike the terrestrial space where (it’s) not easy, but you can manage and prevent gambling dens from being built and so on - it’s incredibly difficult online, and that space continues to grow. So with these measures alone, it will not eradicate the problem. When we have a controlled outlet, valve, that’s provided for by the law, I think it allows the space, where those who are in that space, instead of being on an illegal site, can perhaps be in a safer space where crime is removed from the picture. And at least, safety measures are put in place to try to manage it actively.
But will it completely solve the problem? It will not. Because there will be those who will seek to bypass existing blocks and bans. So for that, we have to encourage people to avoid these sites by education, by support measures that are being put in place .... We share common desired outcomes with many of these groups. The issue is how best to address the problem. I wish we could solve the problem just by having a robust set of laws … but we don’t think that it will, because people will still be there, and they’re not protected. This the approach that we’re taking to make sure the problem doesn’t proliferate and get worse.
Q: After the green light was given to Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club, what kind of feedback were you immediately getting from stakeholders, even though they were consulted beforehand?
Tan Chuan-Jin: We’ve had various reactions. Some had forgotten that we debated this in Parliament two years ago. A number of them surfaced feedback. Some were concerned about why after we approved (the Bill), the companies suddenly came forward to put forth their suggestions. We’ve been working with the groups for some time, because we wanted to make sure that it is not just theoretical, that these companies can actually make sure that the restrictions put in place could work in reality, before MHA approves it … I fully understand how individuals react, especially when we’re not handling the issue in detail. Most people understand the ills that come with problem gambling, but the criminal element is not always so obvious and that’s something we are particularly worried about. And we need to manage the space quite tightly, which is why we decided to come forward with a fairly aggressive series of steps … but I think it’s important to put across also, the reasons for doing it, and how we’re trying to deal with it ... Bans and blocks don’t completely work. We will endeavour to strengthen it as we can, add as much friction as possible, but people are still there, finding bypasses. If people are there and not protected, what then do we do to deal with it? Which is why we think that having a very tightly controlled, managed outlet, valve is one way of complementing the whole series of efforts we’ve put in.
Q: Are you boosting resources of MSF’s side to deal with the potential increase in problem gambling cases?
Tan Chuan-Jin: We continue to focus on the issue of problem gambling, which is why we’ve stepped up efforts in terms of raising awareness, education, so that people can recognise the symptoms earlier, come forward if they need to, and best of all, prevent themselves from getting into that position in the first place. Having a tightly managed space is one way of dealing with it; so that people don’t develop the habits that will lead to problem gambling, and perhaps limit (themselves) so they don’t end up being deeply in debt, and (having) things unravel because of that.
We do want to step up, as we have done in the last few years. It’s something that we will take feedback from stakeholders on, because we work very closely with them. They provide the input, but they also are at the front end working with us, dealing and helping the individuals. So it’s not a trivial issue, but like I said, the online gaming space is growing in quite significant proportion, we don't really want to start reacting when the problem becomes acute; we want to deal with it as early as possible, and preempt it.
We’ve stepped up for example, a lot of advertisements, stories like the recent one by (getai singer) Wang Lei.
As the situation evolves, we will look at resourcing it more, even more than we do today, if the need arises.
Q: There is criticism that legalising these online gambling services will exacerbate the problem. We’ve already seen that - it’s going up.
Tan Chuan-Jin: (On the point on problem gambling going up) A lot of this is due to awareness, more people are coming forward … does it mean it’s increasing? More people are coming forward.
I think it’s (a criticism) that some people have raised and are concerned about. I think it’s a fair concern. We actually looked at other regimes out there, for example in Hong Kong and Norway. They have something similar to us. In fact, ours is a lot stricter, both in terms of the laws and the regulatory framework for operators … they’ve also been doing studies to try and examine their own space. Whether, as a result of having this exempt operator regime, does the problem gambling situation increase? What we have found is that it hasn’t exacerbated their situation at all. It hasn’t really increased, so that’s quite encouraging. And especially with the fact that our is actually a much more strict arrangement than they have. But as I said, this is an area that we are concerned about ... because problem gambling online, we think, will grow because of the nature of online gambling in and of itself. Which is why we do need to step in with fairly robust actions, and having a controlled outlet valve, we think, is part of that overall regime, to allow us to manage it as effectively as possible.