I had earlier posted my speech during the debate on the Casino Control (Amendment) Bill on 15 November 2012. The next day, two ministers — Chan Chun Sing (Acting Minister for Social and Family Development) and S. Iswaran (Second Minister for Home Affairs) — rose to address my points and that of the other backbenchers who spoke on the bill. I followed up with several more clarifications to their points. Below is a transcript of the exchange.
The Acting Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Chan Chun Sing): Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank Members for their support of the social safeguards in the Bill. I also appreciate Members’ views and suggestions to strengthen the management of the harm of problem gambling. I share the concerns and I can also attest to the harm that problem gambling brings to the individual, family, community and society.
I saw for myself since I was young the harm that gambling brought to close relatives – whose life direction and work ethics turned negative once addicted; whose character changed and turned into habitual liars; whose families broke up once the addiction took its toll; where innocent children had to endure the hardships of growing up in a broken family; where husband and wife turned against each other; where fathers and sons fought each other over the gambling addiction and many more such sad recollections.
Problem gambling can stem from participation in any or multiple forms of gambling activity, and not just casino gambling. Before I respond to Members’ specific queries and suggestions, I shall first explain the four main considerations that the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) always bears in mind in the design of our social safeguards.
First, this complex issue of problem gambling requires and can only be managed through the combined efforts of personal responsibility, family support, community involvement and that includes the responsible gambling efforts on the part of the operators and our social safeguards. On its own, each effort will be limited in its impact and efficacy. On its own, each will be unable to holistically manage the complex issue of problem gambling. In the design of any social safeguards, we must not inadvertently erode the role of personal responsibility, family support or community involvement. Instead, we must make sure that all four pieces come together and work in concert. This is something that Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Ms Low Yen Ling had also expressed earlier yesterday.
Second, our measures must be calibrated and targeted. Too broad or too blunt a measure will be ineffective in providing preventive assistance to the areas of greatest concern. Too fine or too narrow a measure may be resource intensive in application, yet may not achieve results that commensurate with the efforts and resources expended. Broad-based measures help us reach a wider audience. These include public education initiatives to raise awareness of problem gambling and help services available; and entry levies to deter casual and impulse gambling. On the other hand, targeted measures like exclusion orders and the proposed visit limits help us to manage problem gamblers, those in financial distress, and the financially vulnerable frequent casino patrons.
Third, our policies must be able to be implemented effectively to achieve our desired goals, while avoiding unintended consequences as far as possible. For example, the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) and the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) should not find it too onerous or complicated to implement any proposed measures. Neither should we have measures that are easily circumvented.
Finally, we must continually monitor the gambling landscape to ensure that our measures remain relevant as suggested by Mr Seah Kian Peng, Asst Prof Eugene Tan and Ms Jessica Tan. We should not be complacent just because our probable pathological and probable problem gambling rates today remain stable at 1.4% and 1.2% respectively. As Ms Jessica Tan said, there can never be enough safeguards against the harm of gambling and we need to stay vigilant even as we strengthen our social safeguards. We must stay alert to the evolving trends and be prepared to make the necessary changes in anticipation of new and emerging challenges. For example, Ms Denise Phua and Dr Lam Pin Min raised valid concerns on online gambling, which many jurisdictions are still learning to come to terms with. We too must study the issues and counter-measures carefully and stay ahead of the curve to safeguard our society.
The proposed social safeguards amendments before us are a reflection of the four considerations that I have stated. I will now proceed to address the queries and issues raised by Members in detail.
First, I am heartened to note the general support for the proposed Casino Visit Limit. This will be an extension of the existing Casino Exclusion system under NCPG. Under the proposed amendments, NCPG will be empowered to constitute a Committee of Assessors to consider issuing Third-Party Visit Limit or Casino Exclusion for those identified as financially vulnerable or at-risk, depending on individual circumstances. I would like to assure Mr Dhinakaran and Dr Intan that a due process will be put in place to assess an individual’s financial vulnerability. The NCPG will consider a risk-based approach based on various risk factors such as the frequency of casino visits, credit history and financial situation. It will also take into account information provided by family members during the process. As suggested by Mr Gan Thiam Poh, the NCPG will consider consulting the credit bureaus on developing the assessment for financial vulnerability.
Ms Mary Liew asked about the rationale for introducing Third-Party Visit Limit for persons found to be financially vulnerable and whether an automatic exclusion could be imposed on them instead. Mr Zainal Sapari also sought clarification on the definition of “financial vulnerability”. First, I would like to reiterate that this group of financially vulnerable persons differs from the groups that have been automatically excluded from the casinos such as the undischarged bankrupts or those who are dependent on Government social assistance. Unlike them, these gamblers may not necessarily be financially distressed to be excluded totally from the casinos now. That said, I would like to reassure Ms Mary Liew that NCPG’s Committee of Assessors can issue a Casino Exclusion Order, instead of a Visit Limit, if the situation warrants it.
The financially distressed are already excluded under Third-Party Casino Exclusion. In July and August this year, we extended Third-Party Casino Exclusion to include an additional 15,000 persons, such as recipients of ComCare short- and medium-term assistance and those paying subsidised HDB rental but with arrears of six months or more. I agree with Ms Denise Phua that we should identify those at-risk early so as to proactively consider protective measures for these groups.
Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Intan asked whether we could consider allowing anonymous or third-party applications on behalf of individuals and families for Casino Exclusion Orders or Visit Limits. More pertinent than excluding a person from the casino or imposing a Visit Limit is to get him or her to seek help to curb his or her gambling habit. Research shows that it is most beneficial for the rehabilitation of problem gamblers if their families also support and attend therapy together with them. Thus, it is more beneficial if families are involved directly, rather than as an anonymous or third-party applicant for the Exclusion Order or Visit Limit. Stopping entry to the casinos may be necessary but insufficient to complete the rehabilitation process for the problem gambler. The families need to walk the journey together to heal and to recover.
Mr Hri Kumar also expressed concern that confidential credit records may be used to determine Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit. I would like to assure him that the confidentiality of financial information or credit records will be maintained. NCPG will only approach, for example, credit bureaus with the consent of individuals. However, in cases where financially vulnerable gamblers or persons with poor credit record are brought to the attention of the Council for the purpose of an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit, the individual will be given an opportunity to provide evidence to the contrary.
Mr Desmond Lee suggested imposing a Visit Limit, if necessary, as a condition for those who wish to revoke their Self-Exclusion. With the proposed amendments, the NCPG may require those who wish to revoke their Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit to undergo a harm assessment conducted by an NCPG-appointed professional. The NCPG’s Committee of Assessors can continue to impose a Third-Party Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit, if the person is found to be financially distressed or vulnerable. Also, as suggested by Mr Hri Kumar, the Committee of Assessors will be empowered to refer respondents of Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit, or those who wish to revoke their Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit to participate in a programme of counselling, rehabilitation or special education. In fact, a person subject to a Family Exclusion Order can be referred for counselling under the current Act.
Mr Desmond Lee commented that sufficient flexibility should be given to the NCPG’s Committee of Assessors to impose either a Casino Exclusion Order or Visit Limit for applications by family members, and that the Exclusion Order or Visit Limit should take effect immediately even if the order is not served on respondents. The proposed amendments will allow the Committee of Assessors to issue an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit in the absence of the respondents if they fail to respond to a notice served on them, have indicated that they do not wish to attend the hearing, or cannot be located. Mr Gerald Giam also expressed concern that families may opt for a Visit Limit as an alternative to an Exclusion Order. Indeed, the NCPG will work with family members during the application process to help them determine if an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit will be more appropriate, based on the unique circumstances of each case.
Dr Intan asked how the Visit Limit imposed by the Committee of Assessors would be checked or documented, and whether it would apply to overseas casinos or cruise ships. NCPG will work with the CRA and casino operators to monitor the visits made by those subject to the Visit Limit. Once the individual reaches his maximum number of visits per month specified in the Visit Limit, he will be excluded from the casinos for the rest of the month. The Visit Limit will only apply to the local Integrated Resorts casinos as our legislation does not extend to overseas jurisdictions.
Mr Gerald Giam asked if there are entry barriers for family members to apply for a Family Exclusion Order against their loved ones. The time taken from the point of application to hearing by the Committee of Assessors to determine a Family Exclusion Order application is less than two weeks. The Committee sits about twice a week to hear the applications, not once a month, as Mr Gerald Giam mentioned. Applications are based at Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre so that counselling services can commence at the onset of the process. With the proposed amendments, a provisional Family Exclusion Order can be issued much earlier where necessary. I believe Mr Ang Wei Neng will be assured that, going forward, the Committee of Assessors can protect the family from further harm if there was an urgent need to issue such a provisional order.
While we aim to speed up the processing time for the Family Exclusion Orders, it is important that the process remains robust and reliable. The Committee will take into account all relevant information before the Committee, including information from family members, before deciding to impose a Family Exclusion Order or Family Visit Limit. Under section 163A, the Committee will consider if the individual has engaged, or is likely to engage, in gambling activities in disregard of the needs and welfare of his or her family members for the purpose of a Family Visit Limit, for example, whether the individual provides for the family financially, whether there are signs of trouble such as absenteeism from work, whether he engages in criminal activities, and whether there are demand letters from creditors. As each individual’s circumstances will be unique, the decision to impose a Family Visit Limit is vested in the Committee of Assessors.
I would also like to assure Mr Gerald Giam that the Government is committed to resource NCPG and help services to address problem gambling. While the NCPG Council may comprise only 13 members, it has expertise in pertinent gambling-related areas such as psychiatry, psychology, social services, counselling, legal, rehabilitative and religious services. It is supported by a full-time secretariat. NCPG’s approach is consistent with our overall approach that includes community involvement. Instead of being a self-contained centre, NCPG works in partnership with community organisations such as family service centres, the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS), educational institutions and voluntary organisations such as the community services and Yah! College.
Dr Lam Pin Min, Ms Mary Liew, Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Hri Kumar, Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Gerald Giam are concerned that a Visit Limit could lead to an increase in gambling intensity. This is a valid concern. When it comes to gambling or problem gambling, frequency and intensity tend to go hand in hand. We will monitor the situation closely. We also urge families and friends of gamblers as well as the casino operators, who have a business interest in doing so, to alert NCPG when they encounter individuals who intensify their gambling after a Visit Limit is imposed. The Committee of Assessors can then review the case and impose Third-Party Casino Exclusion, if necessary.
Mr Dhinakaran, Dr Lam Pin Min, Mr Desmond Lee, Mr Zainal Sapari, Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Gan Thiam Poh suggested that a limit on gambling expenditure could be set, including one that is mandatory for either financially vulnerable locals or all casino gamblers. While we put in place rules to safeguard our people, we do not want to end up in a situation where people psychologically pass their personal responsibility to the State. That is if the State limits my gambling to N visits or X amount, then I am safe to gamble within that limit without due consideration of my own personal circumstances, or to control my gambling behaviour, or to monitor the consequences upon myself and my family. This is not the way to interpret our social safeguards.
Both casino operators currently offer a pre-commitment system where patrons can voluntarily set loss limits to pre-determine their expenditure limit at each visit. At this juncture, we will work with the casino operators to enhance the publicity and use of the pre-commitment system as part of their responsible gambling initiatives.
Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Intan suggested that high-risk individuals, for example, those who borrow money from credit institutions or loansharks, or those who are indebted to a certain extent, should be excluded from the casinos. Mr Seah Kian Peng also suggested that low-income earners be excluded from the casinos entirely.
I agree that we should take a proactive and preventive approach to protect the vulnerable groups before they get into trouble. Regardless of whom the individuals borrow from, we should be concerned if they start borrowing money to feed their gambling. Currently, persons with poor credit record can already be subjected to Third-Party Exclusion from the casinos. However, financial vulnerability transcends income level. Regardless of income, if you do not spend within your means, there is always a risk. We want to look at financial vulnerability in relation to frequent gambling and help those who need help, regardless of their income. We will continue to monitor the situation and work with relevant agencies such as MinLaw, as suggested by Ms Low Yen Ling, to identify and consider extending third-party exclusion to more high-risk individuals.
Ms Denise Phua and Mr Gerald Giam were also concerned about Work Permit Holders visiting the casinos. Self-exclusion has been gaining impetus among Work Permit Holders. This is encouraging and shows that foreigners in Singapore are taking active steps to protect themselves against the negative effects of casino gambling. While we have not implemented additional measures on this front at this juncture, I urge employers to continue to encourage their foreign workers to self exclude voluntarily. Keppel Housing Pte Ltd and Tiong Seng Contractors Pte Ltd are two examples of companies which have done so.
Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Desmond Lee also suggested that it would be beneficial for some of the social safeguards measures to be extended to family members of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents who may not be Singaporeans or PRs, such as those holding Long Term Visit Passes (LTVP). There are already such provisions today. These non-Singaporean or non-PR family members can apply for self-exclusions or Family Exclusion Orders, and may also be the subject of Family Exclusion Orders.
Mr Desmond Lee asked about the number of persons excluded under NCPG Casino Exclusion measures, and whether the National Addictions Management Service has seen a noticeable rise in the number of people seeking help for gambling addiction. As at end October this year, about 130,000 persons are excluded under the NCPG Casino Exclusion measures. This includes 85,000 people on Self-Exclusion, 43,000 on Third-Party Casino Exclusion, and about 1,200 on Family Exclusion Orders.
NAMS and the Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre are the two key Government-funded service points for services related to gambling addiction. The number of persons seen at these two centres has increased from around 300 in 2008 to close to 770 between January and October 2012. The upward trend is likely to be a result of efforts by NCPG and NAMS to raise awareness of problem gambling. The figures are encouraging as one of the biggest challenges in treating addiction is to get the affected parties to come forward and seek help. I assure Ms Mary Liew that we will continue to provide the necessary assistance to problem gamblers as well as their families as suggested by Dr Intan. I believe Ms Low Yen Ling will be glad to note that NCPG will continue to work with relevant agencies to strengthen its public education efforts to increase awareness of problem gambling, the problem gambling helpline and other help services available, especially at places where gamblers congregate, for example at gambling venues.
Next, I will elaborate more on the proposed amendments related to Responsible Gambling, as requested by Asst Prof Eugene Tan.
I agree with Mr Dhinakaran and Ms Mary Liew that the casino operators should be responsible stakeholders of society and demonstrate active participation and contribution towards corporate social responsibility. I hope that the IR operators hear the sentiments clearly expressed by Members of this House and appreciate the social context that they are operating in.
I can understand Mr Gerald Giam’s and Dr Lam Pin Min’s concerns on whether the casinos would be able to implement the responsible gambling measures well. As pointed out by Mr Gan Thiam Poh, it is in the interest of the operators to do so if they want to sustain a viable business here in the long run. The IR operators should understand that they will not achieve what they aspire to do if they do not have the support of our public.
Today, the casino operators have in place Responsible Gambling practices that meet the minimum requirements under the Law. These include a pre-commitment system, employee training and patron education, as Ms Low Yen Ling raised, that includes the prominent display of information on problem gambling and help services available. However, there is scope for improvement. More can be done to improve the visibility and efficacy of responsible gambling practices at the casinos.
The Amendment Bill requires the casino operators to propose a responsible gambling programme for the CRA’s endorsement. This programme should be comparable to other jurisdictions or casinos with good responsible gambling practices, as suggested by Mr Chen Show Mao, and should include good practices such as casino-initiated intervention for problem gamblers. Audits will be conducted to ensure that the operators comply with the endorsed responsible gambling requirements, as mentioned by Dr Lam Pin Min and Asst Prof Eugene Tan. Disciplinary action will be taken against the operators should they breach the requirements.
In terms of monitoring the efficacy of responsible gambling measures, as raised by Asst Prof Eugene Tan and Dr Lam Pin Min, I would like to highlight that an inter-agency approach is taken to evaluate the overall impact of the IR casinos. CRA will consider the operators’ level of compliance with our regulatory requirements, including for responsible gambling, when CRA grants or renews the casino licences. Economic reasons will not be the only consideration in our management of the casinos.
With the amendments, we expect the casino operators to have in place enhanced responsible gambling measures and work with the Government to manage the negative social externalities of casino gambling, as suggested by Mr Chen Show Mao. We will also ask the casino operators to consider ideas proposed by Members, including those from Dr Lam Pin Min, as part of their repertoire of responsible gambling practices.
My Ministry will work with NCPG to enhance responsible gambling practices across all forms of gambling in Singapore through the formation of a Responsible Gambling Forum. The aim of this Forum is to facilitate the exchange of views and information on responsible gambling practices and to foster mutual understanding on responsible gambling issues between the community and the gaming industry.
I am glad to note that both community stakeholders and major gambling operators have shown strong support for this idea and have agreed to be part of this Forum. More details on this Forum will be made available early next year.
Mr Png Eng Huat expressed concern over soft advertising by the casino operators. There is a set of existing regulations – the Casino Control (Advertising) Regulations – that requires the casino operators to seek the Authority’s approval for all casino promotions and advertising, including sponsorships. The proposed amendments will further empower the Authority to audit the casino operators’ advertising and promotional activities. Any breach will be subject to disciplinary action.
I recognise that there will always be different pockets of people who are more susceptible to the dangers of problem gambling. Mr Zainal Sapari asked how our young can be protected from online gambling, and Ms Low Yen Ling requested that we extend public education to youth and children. Our youth is a potential at-risk group, especially due to the desensitisation of various online casino-type games through social gaming. Mr Zainal Sapari and Ms Low Yen Ling may be pleased to know that NCPG has begun to reach out to youth through collaborative efforts with organisations such as MCYC Community Services and Republic Polytechnic, to develop and roll out youth gambling awareness and prevention programmes. NCPG will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes and determine what more needs to be done in this area.
The National Addictions Management Service also has an adolescent programme – ReLive! Back on Track – which caters to at-risk youth, their families and friends. ReLive! holds regular talks in schools, and bi-annual open house events targeted at caregivers, social workers and school counsellors to raise awareness of addictions in youth.
Mr Speaker, Sir, in conclusion, this set of amendments before the House is part of our on-going work to address problem gambling, focus on vulnerable groups and improve safeguards for society at large. I would like to reiterate that financial vulnerability does not necessarily equate to low income, as even high-income earners can become financially vulnerable if they do not manage their finances well.
I believe that the proposed set of amendments will go some way in addressing some of the gaps in responsible gambling and problem gambling concerns. We will continue to monitor and strengthen the safeguards as necessary. We are also committed to raising public awareness on the harm of problem gambling, and enhance our counselling and help services to problem gamblers and their families.
I urge Members to support the amendments. I also urge Members to encourage our residents and constituents to support our work to contain and minimise the potential harm of casino gambling.
Mr Speaker, Sir, I will be prepared to take clarifications after Mr Iswaran rounds up the debate.
The Second Minister for Home Affairs (Mr S Iswaran): Mr Speaker, this has been a long debate and I want to thank all 18 Members who have spoken for their general support of the policy intent and proposals of the Casino Control (Amendment) Bill which aims to enhance our casino regulatory framework.
Let me begin by acknowledging the strong and diverse views expressed by Members of the House in the course of this debate. The Government respects and shares their reservations, which stem from deeply held beliefs and concerns for the well-being of Singaporeans and our society.
Seven years ago in this House, in April 2005, the same concerns were debated with vigour and passion. Then too, Members acknowledged the potential economic benefits of the IRs but were anxious about the potential adverse social impact and the implications for law and order. The final decision to proceed with the IRs was not an easy one. It was made despite reservations, even among members of the Cabinet, and only after detailed study, extensive consultation, and a careful consideration of what served Singapore’s best interest. I think the context and tone of that debate and the considerations are best summed by what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in the course of that debate, and I want to quote:
“I respect those who oppose the IRs, and their views. We have decided to proceed, but it is not because we think those against the IRs are wrong, or their reservations unimportant. Their reservations are valid and shared by the Ministers, even those who support the IRs. These reservations are the reason why the Government has said no to casinos for so long. But now we are confronted by a new situation, and the overriding need to remake our city and our economy.”
We made a commitment then that we would put in place a strong casino regulatory and enforcement framework and establish a comprehensive social safeguards regime to protect vulnerable persons and society at large from the harms of casino gambling.
That commitment and determination remains to this day. I chair an inter-Ministry committee that tracks developments in the casinos closely to ensure that even as we derive economic benefits from the IRs, the downsides are minimised and mitigated to the best of our ability.
Members have spoken on four broad areas: social safeguards, gaming regulation, law and order and the economic aspects of the IRs.
Minister Chan has given an extensive and comprehensive account of the social safeguards and I want to augment his comments with three points. First, there is no panacea for problem gambling. Different jurisdictions have sought to address the social downsides of casinos and other forms of gambling in different ways. Some allow free access with robust Responsible Gaming obligations. Others ban locals from entry. But an entry ban simply displaces gambling – offshore, online or underground. Yet others seek to create limited or constrained opportunities. In South Korea, which Ms Mary Liew cited as an example which bans locals from entering casinos, there is, in fact, still one casino which South Koreans are permitted to visit, albeit at a slightly distant location.
What is clear is that there is no fool-proof system that can eliminate the social ills associated with casinos and other forms of gambling, which brings me to my second point, which is that what we have done is to establish an extensive social safeguards regime to minimise the social costs. Our approach is to have broad measures that protect the general local population from the harms of problem gambling, while implementing more targeted measures to protect the financially vulnerable. In fact, we have one of the most elaborate social safeguard systems which, in fact, others are beginning to study and adapt for their own purposes.
Thirdly, and I want to emphasise to this House, the Government is resolute in its commitment to have strong social safeguards. With the proposed amendments, we are further broadening our social safeguards framework to include a Visit Limits regime, increased powers for the NCPG in making Exclusion Orders, and more specific Responsible Gambling requirements to be imposed on casino operators. And we will continue to monitor closely the effectiveness of these additional measures and are prepared to take further steps if necessary.
Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Gerald Giam suggested that we are not paying sufficient attention to the social aspects. If the Members had read the Casino Control Act carefully, they would realise that for the renewal or grant of casino licences, the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) can and will take into consideration the casino operators’ track record of compliance with legal and regulatory requirements that include social safeguards and Responsible Gambling measures. So, it is already in the Act. If an operator does poorly in the area of social safeguards, its licence would be at stake, just as it would be if it had failed to perform up to expectations for other non-gaming obligations.
The current amendments take this even further. The new Part XA provides for an enhanced set of Responsible Gambling measures. Casino operators must propose a specific Responsible Gambling programme based on best practices in other casinos to the Authority for approval. The amendments also empower CRA to audit the Responsible Gambling measures implemented to measure their effectiveness. So, I would like to assure Members that the CRA adopts a holistic approach in the evaluation of the casino operators and we have by no means neglected the social aspects.
Ms Mary Liew and Mr Ang Wei Neng have urged that more resources be allocated to combat the ills of gambling. We all agree that more can and must be done, and the Government has and will continue to commit significant resources to this end – be it to support the work of NCPG and Voluntary Welfare Organisations to help problem gamblers and their families or to enhance the capacity of CRA and other Government agencies to effectively regulate the casinos. Assistance to the families can be rendered through a variety of sources and whether there is a need for an anti-gambling fund per se is something that can be discussed further.
Several Members have asked about visitorship trends. Since 2010, when the IRs opened, we have seen a downward trend in the number of locals visiting the casinos. The data released by the IRs show a decline in the number of local visitors to the casinos from 2010 to 2011 and that continues to this year. The order of magnitude is around 10%-20%, with some variations. This trend suggests that the novelty factor is wearing off and our local market is maturing. This downward trend is also reflected in the quantum of entry levies that have been collected. From 2010 to 2011, the total entry levies collected fell from $216 million to $195 million. The IRs have released figures that estimate that the locals comprise about 25% to 30% of all casino visitors.
Dr Lam Pin Min and others have asked about the effectiveness of the daily entry levies and whether the sum should be revised. Sir, we have debated this question before in Parliament and the fact is there is no precise answer. Our intention was to deter casual and impulse gambling and cause locals to think before they walk into the casinos. At $100, the daily levy is more than the cost of a ferry or bus ticket to neighbouring gaming destinations.
Ms Denise Phua, Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Png Eng Huat suggested that we should do away with the Annual Entry Levies. Their concern was that the Annual Levy may be a low cost, cheaper alternative to the Daily Levies for those who might be prone to problem gambling – a loophole in Mr Png Eng Huat’s terms. But we must first consider the data and see whether this is in fact the case. Of the total number of entry levies, in other words the summation of Annual Entry Levies and Daily Entry Levies that have been purchased by locals in 2011, about 1% was from Annual Entry Levies. What it means is that the significant upfront cost of an Annual Entry Levy does deter people from procuring it, and 1% is hardly a loophole. Moreover, the entry levy system is just one part of our entire framework of social safeguard measures, which includes exclusion orders, targeted measures for the financially vulnerable and, soon, if the Bill is passed, visit limits. These will apply whether one pays an annual or daily levy.
Mr Dhinakaran suggested that employers should be encouraged to opt for exclusion orders for persons who are in positions of authority, responsibility or public accountability. I think this assessment is best left to the boards and senior management of individual organisations to make. Government should not micro-manage and prescribe this but can facilitate this and that is why we have an exclusion regime system that allows for it.
Several Members have expressed concerns – Dr Lam Pin Min, Mr Zainal Sapari, Ms Denise Phua, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar and Mr Desmond Lee – about the safeguards for other forms of gambling beyond the casinos, such as jackpot rooms, and the emerging trend of online gambling. The existing framework which the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and NCPG have in place to address problem gambling also covers these non-casino gambling platforms and operators. NCPG runs a public education programme that focuses on raising public awareness of the dangers of problem gambling, not just casino gambling, via both mass media campaigns and targeted community outreach efforts.
One area which several Members have commented on is the issue of online gambling. Together with other Government agencies, my Ministry – the Ministry of Home Affairs – working with MSF and MOF has commenced a review of our regulatory framework and social safeguards for non-casino gambling, including gambling via online channels. Online gambling, including gambling on social media platforms and mobile devices, is growing in many countries. Many of the emerging online gambling products are also potentially more addictive. Minors may also fall prey easily given the convenient access to mobile devices. Some overseas gaming jurisdictions have started to draw up laws to regulate online gambling. The US, until recently, had adopted mostly a prohibitive approach. Nevada has just begun issuing licences for operators to offer online poker to persons in the state. In the UK, there are fewer restrictions imposed on the provision of gambling products, including those online, by licensed operators. On the other hand, the regimes in Australia and Norway tend to impose greater restriction on gambling products offered online. We will study the developments in these countries carefully as well as our own context as we draw up our framework to address online gambling. But our objective remains the same, which is to preserve our values of thrift and hard work, and to protect our society, especially the vulnerable, from the potential harms of gambling.
Mr Hri Kumar, Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Zainal Sapari, Asst Prof Eugene Tan, Mr Desmond Lee, Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Seah Kian Peng have all raised questions about the gaming regulatory regime.
I must emphasise first that the Casino Regulatory Authority has put in place a rigorous regulatory system and process to support the enforcement of the Casino Control Act. And I want to assure Members that we continue to benchmark our regime against the best practices of referenced gaming jurisdictions such as Nevada, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. We have strict probity requirements, and demand high standards of compliance and integrity in gaming.
Our strong and robust gaming regulatory regime has served us well, and in response the casino operators have put in place systems and processes in compliance within our laws. These range from prevention of money laundering to those rules pertaining to casino games and gaming machines. To bring into effect our unique social safeguard provisions for locals, they have also implemented a comprehensive visitor entry system.
Where the casinos have not complied with our requirements, especially in cases where social safeguard provisions were breached, CRA has taken firm and decisive action. CRA must be able to impose disciplinary actions that are proportionate to the severity of breaches committed. The costs to the casinos for non-compliance must outweigh the potential benefits of such acts. And that is why the Bill seeks to increase the maximum financial penalty that can be imposed for serious breaches from $1 million to 10% of the casino’s annual gross gaming revenue.
Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about regulatory innovation and the offering of “incentives” to operators for meeting larger public interest goals like lower percentage of local visitors, etc. CRA’s regulatory approach has been made clear to operators from the start. As a principle, we expect casino operators to comply fully with our regulatory requirements. If they fall short, they will be subject to disciplinary action. The relationship is an arm’s length one between the regulator and the operator. And that is the right approach and is also the approach that has been taken by many overseas gaming regulators. The incentive for the casino operators – if there is a need for one – is the avoidance of disciplinary action and penalties that will be imposed.
I want to assure Mr Dhinakaran that CRA is also sensitive to business realities, and adopts a practical regulatory approach. Where possible, CRA has reduced the administrative burden on the casino operators without compromising gaming integrity and law and order. For example, in this Bill, we have included amendments that streamline certain notification and approval processes required of the operators for greater business flexibility and efficiency. And the casino contracts regime will be streamlined to reduce the casino operators’ regulatory workload for lower-risk contracts without compromising CRA’s scrutiny of higher risk contracts.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me now address the concerns relating to the crime situation in casinos raised by Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and many other Members. We recognise that the casinos are vulnerable to criminal influence and activities. We have, therefore, from the very outset put in place a strict regime to mitigate these risks. CRA aims to prevent criminal elements from entering the industry, whether as operators, employees, suppliers or contractors. And to deal effectively with the casino crimes, the Police has set up a specialised Casino Crime Investigation Branch in CID prior to the opening of the casinos.
Officers in the Casino Crime Investigation Branch are trained and equipped to deal with the myriad of casino crimes, ranging from cheating scams to past-posting of bets. They work closely with their counterparts in other jurisdictions, like Nevada and Macau. This is especially important given the increasingly transnational nature of crime and organised criminal groups − a point that Ms Denise Phua referred to.
The casino operators also have a major part to play in keeping our casinos safe and secure. Section 129 of the CCA requires casino operators to ensure that criminal activities such as vice and unlicensed moneylending do not take place within the casinos, and they are liable to disciplinary actions if they contravene this requirement. This Bill will require operators to also ensure that other activities such as illegal betting or gaming activities, or unlicensed casino marketing activities, do not take place in the casinos.
Er Dr Lee Bee Wah was concerned that loansharks could use the casinos to perpetuate their illegal activities and target the vulnerable. Unlicensed moneylending is an area that the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Police monitor and work on very closely. As the Member would be aware from previous discussions and questions on this in this House, there has been good progress in the Police’s efforts. The number of loansharking cases has come down since 2010. In 2011, there were about 13,300 cases, which was a 20% drop compared to the previous year. In the first nine months of this year, there was a further 21% drop. The trend is down. It is significant but the numbers are still larger than we would be happy with, and the Police continues to work hard at this. The reasons why we have been able to arrest this are manifold. Police enforcement action is a key factor. Increased preventive education efforts is another important element, and Police-community partnership is critical to this.
Er Dr Lee suggested excluding loansharks and loanshark harassers from the casinos. I would like to inform her that there is already a provision for this in the CCA. These persons fall under the ambit of the Commissioner of Police Exclusion Orders under section 122 of the Casino Control Act. Currently, the Police issues Exclusion Orders to ban undesirable characters from infiltrating the casinos and using the casinos to perpetuate criminal activities. These include loansharks, secret society members and drug traffickers.
Mr Hri Kumar and Mr Gerald Giam have expressed concerns about the risk of organised crime associated with IMA activities. Let me assure Members, first, that the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) conducts extensive probity checks on IMA applicants to ensure that they are not linked to known criminal elements. Mr Giam expressed some scepticism about the process. The fact that we rejected 12 applicants and approved only two IMAs speak of the high standards of probity that we impose on these applicants. And I think the message is clear. If the CRA finds a particular IMA or their representatives potentially linked to criminal groups, this could form the basis for the CRA to then suspend or cancel their licence in the public interest.
Will we have more IMAs in our casinos? Well, CRA will take a cautious approach in deliberating. The criteria are clear, the level of probity is apparent, and the applicants will have to subject themselves to that. While the Act allows us to grant licences to the IMAs for a period of up to three years, CRA has given shorter one-year licences to the two IMAs that were granted licences. I should clarify that our IMA regime is materially different and of a higher level of probity compared to models in other countries. The Member would be well advised to do some research on this.
The crime situation in general in the casinos remains under control. It comprises less than 1% of overall crimes. Crimes occurring within the casinos have typically been of a petty nature, such as theft of casino chips at the game tables or personal valuables, and cheating by past-posting of bets. Syndicated crimes such as cheating scams and counterfeit chips scams remain few and far between in the casinos.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me now turn to the point on economic contributions of the IRs – a point that several Members have raised – and I want to put my response into three categories: (1) the economic benefits brought by the IRs; (2) how we want to continue to ensure that the IRs bring benefits; and (3) the IRs’ place in our tourism and economic strategy going forward.
First, on economic benefits. Members have acknowledged that the benefits have been significant. They have also highlighted that the contributions must benefit Singaporeans and local companies. Ms Jessica Tan asked how many jobs the IRs have created for locals, and whether they are good jobs. Mr Png Eng Huat has also raised some questions over the IR employment data, citing various sources. Let me clarify.
When this House debated whether to proceed with the Integrated Resorts in April 2005, the Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Industry told this House that we had learnt from the Request for Concept (RFC) exercise that the IRs would generate direct employment of about 10,000 jobs and total incremental employment of about 35,000 throughout the economy. This was based on the RFC exercise which was a general conceptual proposal to see whether the idea was meritorious and worth pursuing further.
In 2006, the Ministry of Trade and Industry revised its estimates after more specific information was obtained during the Request for Proposals (RFP) exercise. This is when potential applicants had to put in serious proposals with details on what they would do and the kind of activities they would run. It was then projected that the IRs would generate about 20,000 direct jobs and between 50,000 and 60,000 jobs economy-wide by 2015 in the steady state.
Today, the two IRs directly employ more than 22,000 employees – a point I have made earlier − of whom about 70% are locals. Based on the figures released by the IRs, they hire more than 15,000 locals, which is not an insignificant number.
The Ministry of Manpower is unable to provide firm-level statistics due to the need to protect business confidentiality. However, we should expect that the IRs’ employment profile to be similar to the rest of the economy, where the majority of local employees are Singapore citizens. To further give the assurance to the House, we have approached the two IRs for their figures, in order for them to be shared with Members. I want to inform the House that Singapore citizens comprise about 80% of the IRs’ local employees.
Singaporeans hold jobs in all areas of the IRs’ operations. Some of these jobs are in new areas, which only came about when the IRs were established. These range from positions in theme park operations, to marine specialists at the Resort World Sentosa (RWS) Marine Life Park, education programme managers at MBS’ ArtScience Museum and RWS’ Maritime Experiential Museum. The celebrity chef restaurants at the two IRs have also opened up new opportunities for Singaporeans who have high culinary skills and aspirations. So they offer jobs not just for fresh school leavers but also for mature Singaporeans who want a switch.
We have been asked about the benefits to our local SMEs. As I have said, the IRs have created business opportunities for our SMEs. Eighty per cent of their contracts have been awarded to local companies in a range of sectors such as food and beverage, laundry, cleaning, transportation and security. In 2011 alone, about half a billion dollars worth of contracts were awarded to local companies. The new demand created by the IRs has allowed our SMEs to grow their business and expand their headcount. More importantly, these new business opportunities have enabled local companies to adopt new technologies and move up the value chain.
We need to ensure that the IRs continue to enhance Singapore’s tourism appeal and boost our tourism industry. Only then can we ensure that Singaporeans and our businesses continue to enjoy benefits and opportunities. This has been the Government’s intent from the start.
We should also not take for granted the success that the IRs have achieved to date. We should bear in mind that the business challenges for the IR operators will increase as the novelty factor wears off and the competition in the region increases. Many countries are developing projects to emulate what we have done and to enhance their own tourism appeal, and some are also seeing how they can improve on our IR model. Vietnam has announced that it would open its first IR in 2013. South Korea has planned four IRs, with possibly more to come. In Australia, Sydney is considering an IR overlooking the Darling Harbour. Macau has also announced plans by major operators like Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts for new IRs on the Cotai Strip. So, let us have a care and not presume that the first two years are an indication of sustained performance for the next 20 plus years of the concession.
As Ms Jessica Tan, Dr Lam Pin Min and Mr Ang Wei Neng have correctly pointed out, the IRs will have to continually reinvest and upgrade all aspects of their operations in order to ensure they are internationally competitive as tourist destinations. So we are heartened by the support of Members like Ms Jessica Tan, Dr Lam Pin Min and Mr Ang Wei Neng who have spoken in support of the Evaluation Panel (EP) proposal. The Government’s intention to develop the Integrated Resorts was to ensure that we have a total proposition, not just casinos. This is a point that has been emphasised many times. The casinos have always been intended as a component within the larger IR developments, with the gaming revenues cross-subsidising the development of non-gaming amenities. The proposed amendment will refine our regulatory framework to give effect to the economic policy intent of the IRs.
The performance of the IRs in their non-gaming facilities and attractions will be made explicit as a factor to be considered by CRA in the renewal of a casino licence. This has been provided for explicitly because, hitherto, we have focused more on the social and the legal, law and order, and compliance issues. The EP will provide an independent opinion to CRA on the ability of the IR operators to fulfil their economic obligations.
Ms Jessica Tan in particular asked about the performance indicators that would be used. There is a range. I do not want to be too prescriptive because, as the Member would understand and coming from the business community, it is something that has to be worked out and may evolve over time. But some possible areas that would be considered include the ability of the IRs to develop, maintain and promote themselves as compelling tourist destinations. These will include visitor appeal; how the IRs have fared in terms of overall appeal to tourists, including MICE facilities, attractions, etc. They will also be assessed on indicators such as visitorship trends, benchmarks with respect to similar international attractions, industry standards, and tourism contributions. CRA will take the Evaluation Panel’s opinion into account when it considers the renewal of casino licences.
Mr Ang Wei Neng has asked about setting a target ratio of gaming revenue to total IR revenues. I want to emphasise, first, that these are early days yet. The IRs’ revenues in the first two years are not necessarily representative for what it would be, even in three years’ time. In fact, in the two IRs’ recent quarterly reports, we have already seen the gaming revenues over the last two quarters have significantly declined compared to the previous reference points in the previous year, on a year-on-year basis. This is partly due to global economic uncertainty and also because of other factors, including perhaps some of the novelty wearing off. The gaming industry is volatile and in other jurisdictions, gaming revenues tend to fluctuate from year to year.
On the other hand, the IRs’ non-gaming revenues have been increasing as they progressively opened more of their non-gaming amenities – and this is important. The IRs are still at a nascent stage of development. We should therefore not be hasty in drawing conclusions based on the revenue figures thus far. I would also be cautious about setting target requirements and intervening directly in the business operations of these companies as there may be unintended consequences. Rather, we should look at the real economic outcomes that are of interest to us and that they have committed themselves to. This includes the jobs that have been created and the business opportunities that they generate.
Our aim is to keep the IRs as an important piece of Singapore’s tourism offering in the coming years. But I want to assure Members that the IRs are by no means our only plan to grow our tourism sector or our economy. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has developed a strong pipeline of tourism concepts in areas such as the Jurong Lake and Mandai districts, and works with industry stakeholders to refresh existing tourism offerings. For example, we saw the opening of the Gardens by the Bay and the International Cruise Terminal more recently in October. We are looking forward to the opening of the River Safari early next year.
Sir, Ms Jessica Tan, Ms Denise Phua and Mr Zainal Sapari have highlighted the need to ensure that our economy does not become overly reliant on gaming. I want to assure Members that the Government pursues a broad-based growth strategy and there is no risk of our economy becoming dependent on gaming. We have a well-diversified economy, with manufacturing and services as our twin engines of growth, and we have had new areas of growth as well, in industries such as biomedical sciences, chemicals, transport engineering, precision engineering and aerospace. We continue to develop a broad base for our economy because we want ourselves to be resilient in the event that particular sectors have shocks.
The two Integrated Resorts contribute about 1.5% to 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. That is based on the first two years’ numbers. The 22,400 employees employed by the IRs comprise about 0.7% of our total labour force, or about 2% if you consider the other 40,000 jobs created economy-wide.
Similarly, the gaming taxes comprise a small fraction of Government revenues. In FY 2011, after taking into account the displacement factor – because with the advent of the IRs, some of the other sources of gambling revenue have diminished – the net increase in tax revenues due to the IR casinos was $1.1 billion or 2.2% of total Government operating revenue. These are hardly the basis on which Government should have fiscal addiction to revenues from the IRs, a point that Ms Denise Phua emphasised.
Mr Speaker, Sir, several speakers have made comparisons between Singapore and Macau. I would like to put these comparisons in perspective. In 2011, Macau’s gaming revenue was US$33.5 billion or about 92% of its GDP. As a gaming market, Macau is more than seven times that of Singapore. We are at no risk of being another Macau or being overly dependent on the casinos or IRs.
But beyond all of these, I want to take us back to the first question which is why did we embark on this Integrated Resorts venture. It is to create real opportunities for Singaporeans and Singapore companies. And I want to illustrate this because in all the numbers, in all the data and all the debate, sometimes we lose track of whom we are trying to benefit and how we are trying to help them.
Thirty-one-old Mr Gwern Khoo is a Chef de Partie in Waku Ghin, one of the celebrity chef restaurants at Marina Bay Sands (MBS). Before joining MBS, Gwern helped out at his father’s food court stalls selling duck rice and wanton noodles since the age of 14. He also worked part-time as a casual banquet staff in a hotel. After discovering his interest in cooking, he went on to Shatec to take a diploma in culinary skills before joining MBS. Today, Gwen has come a long way and has been identified by celebrity chef Tetsuya as a promising local culinary talent.
Another example of an IR employee is Mr James Tan Chee Meng, a 69-year-old who is enjoying his second career as a full-time crew at Universal Studios Singapore (USS), where he is responsible for ensuring the premises and equipment are in order at Pantages Theatre. James is a former engineer who got bored after retiring for less than three months and wanted to return to the workforce. He decided to apply to USS. Described as a dedicated and fatherly figure to the team, James has displayed leadership qualities and is being recommended for career advancement in the USS team.
Let me also give you an example of a local SME which has benefited from the IRs’ business – Laundry Network. This picture shows Mr Chan Tai Pang, who is the 66-year-old owner of Laundry Network. His company designed a unique uniform management system that is being used by both IRs. This system allows IR employees to swipe their staff passes at the uniform kiosks and collect their uniforms via a special conveyor belt. The business from the IRs has allowed the company to move up the value chain and implement new technology. The company made a combined S$9 million when it implemented a uniform management system that utilises radio frequency identification to track laundry for both IRs. Maintenance contracts with both IRs for this system are worth a total of S$500,000 per annum. Laundry Network has since increased its staff count by over 50% to more than 300 workers today. These are specific examples and there are many others like them, and I want to use them just to illustrate the point that we are able to create new opportunities for our people and our businesses, and this is an important aspect that must not be disregarded in this debate.
Mr Speaker, Sir, the Integrated Resorts have operated for more than two years now. With the benefit of practical experience regulating the casinos, this review of the Casino Control Act is timely. It allows us to refine our system and processes, taking into account new developments in the gaming sector and overseas jurisdictions, and ensure that our casino regulatory regime remains effective.
The value proposition of the IRs is the economic benefits that they bring and their role in making Singapore a vibrant and dynamic economy. We want the IRs to continue to reinvest and upgrade their attractions and facilities, stay ahead of regional competitors, and remain compelling world-class tourist destinations. This way, they will create jobs for Singaporeans, attract more tourists and increase business opportunities for local SMEs. Members have spoken passionately about the need to contain the social impact. This is something the Government is fully committed to do. We are already a jurisdiction with one of the most extensive social safeguards regime. We will stay vigilant on the social impact and ensure that vulnerable segments of society continue to be protected from the harms of gambling. Police and other law enforcement agencies will also continue their tough enforcement stance so that casinos remain free from criminal influence. Ultimately, we want to create more opportunities for the Gwern Khoos, James Tans and Laundry Networks amongst us. The Integrated Resorts are one means of doing so. So I urge Members of the House to give your full support to the Casino Control (Amendment) Bill.
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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): Mr Speaker, I have five questions, three clarifications for Minister Iswaran and two for Acting Minister Chan. I promise I will make it quick. Regarding the annual entry levy, I understand Minister’s explanations about the premium players and the need for, to give them an annual entry levy. But surely there are many people who are buying the annual entry levy who are not premium players. So is there a way to exclude those people, for example, pairing the annual entry levy with the minimum deposit of $100,000 so that we exclude all those people who are not premium players?
Secondly, on his point about the evaluation panel. I did not say that the CRA does not take into consideration the social safeguards. What I was saying – specifically on the evaluation panel – whether or not that evaluation panel can include aspects of the social impact of the casinos, rather than just be focused on the economic impact. Because this is a panel that is instituted by law and presumably its views carry a lot of weight.
The third question for Mr Iswaran is regarding the junkets or the IMAs. I did not say anywhere in my speech that the CRA does not conduct sufficient probity checks on the IMAs. I am glad that the CRA will continue to take a cautious approach. My question was, why is there a need to facilitate more junket operators, which is what the revised regulations seem to be preparing us for – more and larger junket operators.
My two questions for Acting Minister Chan – are, firstly, about the period in which the panel of assessors meet. I got this information from the NCPG website, which I just checked and it is still there that the panel of assessors convenes to decide on all family exclusion applications once a month. So if this has actually been revised to two weeks, I suggest that the Ministry revises that website. Secondly, I do not think the Minister has explicitly responded to my point about the self-exclusions, and whether or not NCPG or the Ministry could promote self-exclusions as a norm so that more schools, more students and social organisations would be encouraged to encourage their members to apply for self-exclusions.
Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Speaker, Sir, on the first question, I will convey your information to NCPG and get them to update the website. On the second question, yes, we are continuing to promote self-exclusion, but I must say that we do not want only more people to come on board, we want those that are most at-risk to come on board, and that is where we are focusing our efforts. For example, we know many people in the church groups are not in the at-risk group due to their spiritual belief; they do not go to the casinos. If they come on board, we welcome them, but they are not really the target group that we are going after as priority. We are going after those who are most at-risk and we will work with various community groups to ensure that we continue to promote these efforts.
Mr S Iswaran: Sir, I thank the Member for his questions. First, on Annual Entry Levy and whether it can therefore be confined to premium players. My purpose in giving the 1% statistic was to illustrate the proportionality because there was an impression created, certainly by some Members that somehow this is a gaping loophole. It is not.
Secondly then, the question is – and it is implicit in the Member’s question – we should not assume that just because someone buys an annual entry levy, he or she has problems with gambling. There are quite legitimate buyers of annual levies as well. So I think the best way to go about this is, in the course of the more detailed social safeguards implementation that we envisaged, it will certainly emerge who are the people who have a problem with gambling or who are financially vulnerable. In those instances, we must seek to impose limits. If it becomes a systemic problem, then certainly we will have to consider some other measures, perhaps along the lines of what the Member has suggested. But I think it is a bit premature to think about that at this stage.
Thirdly, I appreciate his verification on his point about the evaluation panel. I want to make it clear. The reason we set up this evaluation panel, was precisely because this was one area which we need to think of, for the future. Because we are now approaching the end of the development phase of the IRs, and we need to think about how they are going to maintain and improve their facilities in the longer run. This evaluation panel was established expressly for that objective. The social safeguards element is well taken care of through the entire slew of measures and processes we have in place, embedded in the Act and enforced by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. All these trains converge in the CRA and the CRA ultimately takes a total view in evaluating a casino operator and the operator’s compliance to our rules and requirements.
Final point on the IMAs and I would urge the Member to use the term “international marketing agent” rather than junkets because it is not just nomenclature. It is a fundamental point of reference that we want to emphasise. Having said that, first, why is there a need for junket operators? Well, simply because it is part of the industry. I know that there are some pejoratives associated with that, but that is exactly why we have the standards of probity that we have, and we seek to keep it on the straight and narrow.
Secondly, does this mean that we are preparing for more IMA licences? By no means. All we are saying is that we want to have a regime in place so that everybody understands, “This is the deal if you want to come to Singapore”. Just as a casino operator has licensing requirements, the IMA operators will have their own licensing and other requirements.