SINGAPORE: Clubs operating jackpot machines will come under more restrictions in order to get a permit to run such facilities, announced the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Thursday (Jul 20).
Among the new measures, clubs will need to prove that they provide a “suitably wide range of substantive recreational and social facilities" apart from running jackpot or fruit machines, and the quota for such machines will be reduced.
In addition, the minimum age to enter jackpot rooms will be raised from 18 to 21 years old.
These restrictions are meant to protect people from the potential harms of gambling. They were announced after a year-long review by MHA to ensure that clubs operate such machines only to supplement recreational facilities like karaoke rooms or swimming pools, rather than have them as a primary operation.
“Our sense was that that original objective was not being met with a number of these outfits,” Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told reporters. “From the review, we decided to substantially tighten it up, because we want to get back and keep to the original objectives.”
According to MHA, there are 82 clubs operating close to 1,900 jackpot machines across Singapore. These machines can be found in social clubs such as the Singapore Recreation Club, and in football clubhouses such as those of Tiong Bahru and Woodlands Wellington.
The new regulations, when implemented over the next two years, are expected to reduce the number of jackpot machines by a third, said Mr Shanmugam.
STRICTER CRITERIA FOR PERMITS
To continue operating such machines, a permit officer appointed by MHA will assess if the clubs' jackpot operations form only an “ancillary” part of a wider range of social and recreational offerings. Currently, clubs need only provide at least two other examples of social activities.
Those that do not meet the new benchmarks will have to cease fruit machine operations by Apr 30 next year.
Citing the NTUC Club as an example of an outfit that would be able to meet the new criteria, Mr Shanmugam said only clubs that have a “bona fide social purpose” can provide jackpot machines as an additional service.
“Some of them sort of pay lip service to the need to provide other services and focus on the jackpot machines as their primary objective – that we cannot allow,” he stressed.
Earlier this year, it was reported that the Tiong Bahru Football Club's (TBFC) clubhouse – located at the basement of People’s Park Centre in Chinatown – generated a whopping S$36.8 million in revenue from its 29 fruit machines in the last financial year.
Its jackpot operations come under scrutiny earlier this year when TBFC was suspected of misusing club funds, which led to a police report filed by Sport Singapore.
When asked if that incident led to the stricter regulations, Mr Shanmugam pointed out that his ministry's review of jackpot machines was mentioned during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament last April, before the saga involving TBFC came to light.
While Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that there is “a subjective element” in the new criteria, he said ultimately, the permit officer will look at what the main business of the organisation is and whether there is a social purpose to be served.
“I think it is fair to say it is likely that if some of the clubs don’t change their model … then it will be difficult to carry on in their current form.”
The permit officer will seek the input of other government agencies in making the assessment, MHA added.
RESTRICTIONS ON NUMBER OF MACHINES, MINIMUM AGE OF PLAYERS
The quotas for such machines in each club will also be reduced in the next two years.
Mr Shanmugam said his ministry will put requirements on the space that can be utilised for jackpot machines in each club.
"We will look at the revenue that is being derived, we will look at the primary objective and area of service that the club is providing and based on that we will come to some conclusions," he added.
Clubs which have obtained a permit will face tougher restrictions in operating jackpot machine rooms.
The minimum age to enter jackpot machine rooms will be raised from 18 to 21 years old, and operating hours are restricted from between 10am and 11pm.
In addition, only individuals who hold membership terms of at least one year will be allowed to enter fruit machine rooms. This restricts access for short-term members and for guests of members.
“We do not want people to circumvent the rules,” Mr Shanmugam said. “So you will therefore not be able to have a situation where a club … has a couple of services, but primarily has walk-in customers who become members on the spot to play the jackpot machines.”
STRONGER SOCIAL SAFEGUARDS
To strengthen social safeguards, clubs must remove ATM, Electronic Fund Transfer and Point-of-Sale payment facilities from their fruit machine rooms. There are currently no such restrictions.
Advertising and promotion of fruit machines outside the rooms will also be banned. Clubs have so far been allowed to advertise their jackpot operations within their clubhouses and on their websites.
Finally, individuals under the exclusion scheme under the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) must be barred from fruit machine rooms. These include those who have been excluded from casinos due to family objections or financial reasons.
Clubs should also offer NCPG’s centralised self-exclusion scheme by May 1 next year, to allow individuals to exclude themselves through a single application.
“The essence of this is, really, jackpot machines are essentially a form of gambling,” Mr Shanmugam explained. "Therefore, the significant new safeguards are being put in place, they must be positive and must help society as a whole."
"We think it should have a positive impact."
Singapore Xin Hua Sports Club president Gan Cheng Song said the changes will "definitely affect" jackpot operations at his club. "The slot machines are important to us, because it is not cheap to run such clubs, and it requires some other forms of support," he told Channel NewsAsia in Mandarin.
While Mr Gan declined to reveal the number of slot machines his Chinatown-based club is running, he said they operate from 10am till 3am.
"We feel that with the clamping down on the number of slot machines by the Government, we are going to face a lot of difficulties and we will be unable to expand," he added.
In addition to managing a football team, Mr Gan hopes his club can venture into badminton and table tennis – by setting up five additional slot machines to generate more income.
"We haven't gotten a reply for our application," Mr Gan said. "If we manage to succeed somehow, we will make sure we do a good job with our sports ventures."
On the other hand, SAFRA welcomed the new measures, saying it supports "responsible gaming". The association deploys an average of 20 jackpot machines per clubhouse.
"We will study the potential impact on our operations and how to fulfil the regulatory requirements," it said.