Twelve years ago, the national debate on whether Singapore should allow in Las Vegas-style casinos ignited my interest in discussing policy issues that affect country’s future. I followed the debate closely, spoke with friends and family about it, and attended several government feedback forums to voice my views. I wrote letters to a junior minister, went to lobby my local MP at his meet-the-people session, and even started a petition (the hard copy sort), collecting dozens of signatures from my church friends before submitting it to the government. I was a wide-eyed, idealistic kid, who thought that the government was sincere about seeking feedback from ordinary citizens, and that this feedback would be able to influence the final decision.
Alas, that was not to be. The following year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dropped a bombshell: The government had decided to go ahead with the casinos – and not just one casino, but two.
Scales fell off my eyes that year. Until then, I thought that the PAP government was by and large a “righteous government” that governed in the best interests of the people, making politically unpopular decisions because they were morally right. But I could not see anything right in the casino decision. I lost my esteem for the PAP that year, no longer seeing them as the flagbearer of a “righteous government”. Far from it. I concluded that positive change from within would be impossible in Singapore. Less than two years later, I joined the Workers’ Party (WP), which to its credit, fiercely objected to the introduction of casinos.
Events over the past week have brought back memories of my political awakening.
Last Thursday (22 Sept 2016), it was reported that the two state-owned gambling operators, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, had submitted applications to get exemptions from the ban on online gambling. This came as a surprise to many Singaporeans, but my WP colleagues and I saw it coming. Back in 2014, when the Remote Gambling Bill was tabled in Parliament, we spotted a seemingly innocuous provision for a “not-for-profit entity that distributes the moneys forming part of its funds to public, social or charitable purposes in Singapore” to be granted an exemption from the ban, if the Minister for Home Affairs so decides. Who else would fit that description? It was a piece of legislation that would deal these two gambling operators a monopoly in online gambling. My then-parliamentary colleagues Pritam Singh, Png Eng Huat and Yee Jenn Jong argued strongly against it, and even called for the bill to be referred to a Select Committee for further scrutiny and to gather more expert views, with a view of removing that odious provision. This was rejected by the government, which went ahead to pass that bill the same day with its super-majority in Parliament.
On Tuesday (27 Sept), knowing that it was our last chance to stop the exemption from being granted, WP issued a statement, calling on the government to reject both applications. Separately, another group had launched an online petition on 15 Sept, urging the same. This petition has gathered 12,447 signatures (including mine) as of the time of writing. There was no response from the government until Thursday afternoon when they announced that both operators had been issued a certificate of exemption, paving the way for them to begin operations as early as next month.
That the operators can now simply flip the switch and launch their gambling websites so soon after getting their certificates could only mean that they knew long ago that they were going to get the nod. Indeed, 15 months ago, one of them had reportedly engaged a giant British online gambling software developer in a contract worth $10 million to build their new gambling website. It turns out this was a fait accompli from day one!
Everyone I have spoken to is against opening up our country to online gambling – family, friends, residents whom I just visited yesterday evening during house visits. One resident told me in exasperation, “这样会害死人! (figuratively, “this will bring much harm to people”) and pointed out the contradiction that the government had been broadcasting advertisements on TV discouraging gambling, yet had gone ahead to expand access to gambling. Whom exactly will this decision benefit? Certainly not those who are going to get hooked on gambling, with online betting becoming a “gateway” to more high stakes gambling.
Twelve years after that fateful casino debate, Singaporeans are staring at yet another decision that brings the vice of gambling closer to home (in fact into homes), albeit this time without the “hassle” of a six-month public consultation exercise like they had for the casino debate.
King Solomon once said that “righteousness exalts a nation”. It has become clear to me that the PAP has long lost its aura of “righteousness”. Today, online gambling is legalised. Tomorrow, a third casino? We cannot continue handing them a blank cheque to do as they please.