SINGAPORE: The Government’s move to approve the applications of two operators to run online betting services under strict conditions will drive more people to turn to these legal betting outlets instead of illegal services, experts told Channel NewsAsia on Thursday (Sep 29).
The two operators, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, will have to implement a host of social safeguards in their online gambling and betting systems. On Thursday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) exempted them from the Remote Gambling Act, which bans all online and phone betting activities.
The ministry had said that a complete ban on remote gambling will drive demand and activities underground, and may create larger incentives for criminal syndicates to target Singapore. It added that the tightly controlled exempt operator regime is intended to complement strong enforcement action and blocking measures under the Remote Gambling Act.
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) said it supports the “stringent controls” and social safeguards imposed on the exempt operators. “We know that there are people gambling on illegal websites today, and there are no safeguards at all on these sites,” said NCPG chairman Tan Kian Hoon in a statement. “There is no protection for persons who are gambling illegally and there are no restrictions on advertising and promotions by illegal operators.”
“With the exempt operator regime, we can now put in place safeguards and regulations to minimise the ill effects of gambling and possible addiction.”
Consultant psychiatrist at the Resilienz Clinic Dr Thomas Lee expressed a similar view. He said the social safeguards proposed by the authorities are “sufficient” and will protect against problem gambling. “The safeguards are there to help people to gamble within a safe zone and minimise harm,” he said.
But he cautioned that no safeguards are entirely foolproof. “Some gamblers could still find ways and means to circumvent the safeguards,” added Dr Lee, who is also a member of the Responsible Gambling Forum. “Ultimately, I feel gamblers should still take personal responsibility and exercise caution when they gamble in any activity.”
But others felt that these legal online gambling options provide easier access to gambling. “Coupled with the ubiquitous ownership of smartphone devices, there is a greater risk for individuals to be exposed to the dangers of gambling, compared to traditional methods of placing a bet over the counter,” said senior director of TOUCH Family Services Edmund Wong.
“The access to online gambling may also facilitate the young, who are digitally savvy, having grown up with the Internet being a major part of their lives, to try out gambling,” he added.
In fact, gamblers recovery centre Blessed Grace Social Services has seen a sharp increase in the number of young gamblers coming to seek help. “Last year, we saw about 200 cases, but for the first six months of this year, we’ve already seen about 125. That’s a 25 per cent jump in the number of cases,” said founder and executive director Pastor Billy Lee, adding that at least half of this number come in with addictions to online gambling.
And despite the safeguards in place, Pastor Lee said these legal options are “not a good thing”.
“No matter what restrictions there are, eventually it is the easy accessibility to these sites that will pose the real danger,” he said. “Once the present addicted gamblers have exhausted the limits on these sites, they will find another place to get their fix and could turn to the illegal sites. At the same time, the social gamblers could start trying these legal sites out for fun, and get addicted in the process.”
It is for this reason, he said, that he thinks an outright ban on online gambling would be better. “What’s the point of banning illegal sites and keeping a few legal options open?” he asked. “You’re sending mixed signals to the population and it could seem that the authorities are implicitly condoning online gambling.”
PUBLIC EDUCATION IMPORTANT
Public education efforts will therefore need to go hand-in-hand with the social safeguards, said the experts.
“I personally find that a lot of my gambling patients lack certain knowledge about the harms of gambling,” said the Resilienz Clinic’s Dr Lee. “They have a lot of false beliefs and superstitions about gambling, especially online gambling, where the money spent is real money, but to them it’s just virtual money.”
“A lot of effort needs to be put in to educate the public and let them know that online gambling is not that innocent, and is something that we need to be very careful about.”
TOUCH Family Services’ Mr Wong said it will require a “whole of community approach” to minimise the dangers and ensure responsible gambling.
“While the Government may put in place technical and legislative safeguards, families, education institutions, social service agencies and the community-at-large can play a part in mitigating the risk of gambling both online and offline,” he said. “For instance, families should be educated and made aware of the potential dangers such as easy access as well as possible consequences of gambling.”
He added that with the widespread influence of gambling elements online, youths also need to be aware of the dangers and consequences of gambling, as well as good financial literacy skills. “This can be done together with the Ministry of Education to keep up to speed with the fast changing developments in the digital world.”
The NCPG has been conducting prevention programmes with an emphasis on remote gambling since 2014, said NCPG’s Mr Tan, adding that the council partners TOUCH Cyber Wellness and Fei Yue Community Services to deliver its cyber wellness roadshows and talks in schools. It also reaches out to those who have left schools through social media and other online platforms.