Stem the rising tide of casino gambling

Mr Speaker, problem gambling is a terrible scourge in any society, cousin to alcoholism and drug abuse. The introduction of casinos seems to have sent a wrong signal that gambling can be glitzy and glamorous, or worse, part and parcel of a total family entertainment package. Some 200,000 Singaporeans visited the casinos in 2010. We already have the dubious honour of the second highest gambling losses per capita, according to the Economist magazine. We must significantly step up our efforts to stem this rising tide, or risk seeing more and more people falling prey to gambling addiction at the hands of our two casinos.

This was a speech I made in Parliament on 15 November 2012 during the debate on the amendments to the Casino Control Act.

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Mr Speaker, Sir,

Let me state categorically that I have always been strongly against having casinos in Singapore – and I have held this view long before I entered politics. Before the Government allowed in casinos seven years ago, I had written several letters to the Government, voicing my strong objections. I took part in feedback forums and even organised a petition to urge the Government not to proceed with the casino.

Regrettably, the Government proceeded to issue not just one, but two casino licences, despite strong objections from many Singaporeans. It was a dark day for many who felt that we were sacrificing some of our cherished values on the altar of economic growth.

Regardless of the economic benefits the casino may have brought, one ruined life, one bankrupt individual, or one broken family caused by casino gambling is one too many for Singapore.

Gambling, and in particular casino gambling, is a scourge to society. According to a Straits Times report last September, seven in 10 gamblers who sought help in counselling centres for their addiction said the casinos were the main reason for their money woes (Tai 2011).

The Australian Productivity Commission (APC) found that five to 10 people are affected for every individual who is a problem gambler (ScotCen 2006, 43). These include spouses, children, parents, co-workers and employers. In a survey conducted last year, Singapore’s National Council for Problem Gambling (NCPG) found that 2.6% of Singapore residents are problem or “probable pathological” gamblers (NCPG 2012, 11). This translates to over 98,500 Singapore residents (SingStat 2012, 23). Multiplied by six, which is on the conservative end of the APC estimate, there could be well over half a million people in Singapore who are directly or indirectly affected by problem gambling.

Now that the casinos are already on our shores, we need to make every effort possible to minimise the many negative social effects caused by them. This will be the focus of the rest of my speech.

Visit Limits and Exclusion Orders

The Bill introduces the concept of a Visit Limit, which allows individuals, their families or third parties to apply to limit the number of visits to the casinos by a gambler within a given month.

One of the key concerns about the Visit Limit expressed during the public consultation is that it may inadvertently increase a patron’s gambling intensity during his limited visits. To mitigate this risk, I propose that an Expenditure Limit order be imposed together with the Visit Limit. Once the expenditure limit is reached, no more bets may be placed, even if the visit quota for the month has not been reached.

I am also concerned that the Visit Limit may be used as a substitute for an Exclusion Order. Instead of taking out an Exclusion Order, the parties may go for the “soft” option of a Visit Limit. Hence the problem gambler’s habit continues to be fed, albeit at a more controlled pace.

If we introduce the option of a Visit Limit, then there should not be a heavy burden on the family to prove that the respondent is a problem gambler. I hope that applications will not be easily rejected against the desires of the family members. As such, could the Minister clarify, with examples, what constitutes (quote) “gambling activities in disregard of the needs and welfare of the respondent’s family members” (unquote), as worded in Section 163A subsection 4(a)?

This brings me to my next concern about both the Family Exclusion Order and the Family Visit Limit: Are the application procedures too onerous to be useful in practice?

According to the NCPG website, family members can take up a Family Exclusion Order only through Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre (FSC). The Committee of Assessors convenes only once a month and would need to prove that “serious harm” was inflicted on the family due to gambling before approving the application. The Committee may also summon to a hearing “any person whom it may consider able to give evidence” (Section 158(4)).

This poses high entry barriers to family members who may wish to take up an Exclusion Order for their troubled loved ones. They might deem the process too troublesome or intrusive. It is no wonder that only 900 family exclusions have been issued as of January this year, compared to 42,700 self-exclusions, which can be obtained online instantly with a SingPass. 900 family exclusions make up barely 0.9% of the estimated number of problem and probable pathological gamblers in Singapore. This hardly makes a dent on the enormity of this problem.

Sir, for the Visit Limit applications, will families have to go through this same process? Given that a problem gambler can lose thousands of dollars a day at the casinos, one month may be too long a wait for the order to come into effect.

May I propose that Family Exclusion and Family Visit Limit applications be provisionally granted immediately upon an application by the family member. Close family members would, in the vast majority of cases, have the respondent’s best interests at heart. They would be in the best position to gauge whether the respondent has gambling problems which are affecting the family.

Only if the respondent disputes the Exclusion Order or Visit Limit, would a hearing need to be convened to make an assessment on the appeal, and repeal the order if the application is deemed to be frivolous.

This would encourage more families to apply, and ensure that their relative is immediately prevented from doing more harm to himself and his family.

How then do we prevent frivolous applications? Firstly, I don’t think we need to put too many checks and counter-checks in place to prevent these very unlikely situations. How many frivolous applications were received by NCPG in the past three years that had to be rejected?

Secondly, the rare frivolous application can be easily reversed with an appeal by the respondent and a decision by the Committee of Assessors. Being barred from the casino is not a death sentence. In fact, it will do most people’s pocketbooks some good, and one month would not be too long to wait for the order to be overturned.

Self-Exclusions

The Self-Exclusion is a good preventive measure which should be encouraged and promoted. However, I have found that most people are not aware of this self-exclusion facility. I would suggest that schools, social service and religious organisations encourage their students and members to apply for self-exclusions, just as some employers do for their foreign workers. The NCPG should better publicise these schemes so that people know they exist and are taught how to apply.

Self-exclusion should not carry a social stigma of being a problem gambler. For the record, my wife and I excluded ourselves as soon as the facility was made available, even though we don’t gamble.

Entry levies

The current casino entry levies for Singaporeans and PRs stand at $100 for a daily entry levy and $2,000 for an annual entry levy. I am disappointed that this Bill contained no review of the levies, and even more disappointed to discover that Section 116(4) locks in the current levy amounts for 10 years.

If the Government is serious about putting in place effective social safeguards against problem gambling, it should do away with the annual levy. $2,000 amounts to only a paltry $5.50 per day, and is equivalent to only 20 daily entry levies. Effectively, regular gamblers get a “discount” off their levy, while occasional gamblers have to pay a higher levy per visit. This sends the wrong message that regular gambling is preferred over occasional gambling. An annual entry levy, regardless of amount, will lead to a “buffet syndrome”; people will be incentivised to visit the casinos more just to get their levy’s worth.

With the data from actual transactions over the past two years, the Government would know how many times each annual entry levy holder has visited the casinos in a year. Anecdotally, I know that most hard-core casino gamblers buy the annual pass, rather than the daily pass. Hence, doing away with the annual levies could be a very effective step in combating excessive gambling in our casinos.

Currently the entry levy applies only to Singaporeans and PRs. The Government should extend the entry levy to all foreigners who are here to work or study in local schools, as well as Long Term Visit Pass (LTVP) holders.

The rationale for casinos targeting tourists, and not locals, is to prevent residents from developing gambling issues and causing problems in their homes and our community. However, foreign workers, including foreign maids, are effectively part of our community, unlike tourists who are here today and gone tomorrow. If foreign workers patronise the casinos and develop gambling problems, their work performance will suffer and this would affect their co-workers, employers or the families they work for.

Most foreign students in our local schools receive large tuition grants from the Ministry of Education; some are here on full scholarships. Singaporean taxpayers have made a large investment in them. They should therefore be discouraged from patronizing the casinos and gambling away our investments.

Lastly, LTVP holders are often married to Singaporeans and many are not earning an income. Their gambling problems will therefore affect local families. This is why they should also be subject to the casino entry levy.

Responsible gambling

The new Section 170B mandates that the casino operator shall establish and implement a responsible gambling programme. But can casinos really be trusted to run these programmes effectively, when it is neither in their vested interests to do so, nor is it part of their core business? Why not outsource these programmes to independent, social service organisations specializing in responsible gambling? These organisations will have an interest in reducing not just problem gambling, but gambling in general.

Compared to its counterparts in Australia, Canada and the US, the NCPG seems rather underfunded, understaffed and underdeveloped. It is now a council of 13 members supported by a secretariat from the Ministry of Social and Family Development. The NCPG does not provide help directly. It redirects problem gamblers to third parties. This is inadequate for the implementation of a comprehensive responsible gambling programme.

Sir, the NCPG needs to be transformed into a national centre run by professional staff providing research, outreach education, help services, programmes and best practices consultancy all under one roof.

Casino Junkets

Next, I would like to comment on the amended regulations of casino junkets – or “international market agents” as the Government now calls them. Junkets are essentially casino promoters, tour agents and moneylenders rolled into one. They have a notorious reputation of often being associated with organised crime (Lo 2005), which is probably why the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) has moved so tentatively in granting junket licences until now.

The CRA recently granted licences to two junkets (Ng 2012). These two junkets seem to have been approved because they are small operators with limited impact. Is the Government thinking of opening up the market to more junket operators? Would this be a slippery slope down to the situation in Macau, where junkets are responsible for a lot of the loansharking and other organised crime (Lo 2005)? Does the CRA have the capacity and capability to regulate an increasingly complex casino business, made more complicated by the junkets?

Our casinos are already among the most profitable in the world. Is there a need for more junket operators to prop up demand?

Evaluation Panel

This brings me to my final point on the Bill. A new Section 45A was added to empower the Minister to appoint an Evaluation Panel to evaluate the casinos on visitor appeal, international value of attractions, meeting prevailing market demand, and contribution of the casinos to Singapore’s tourism industry. The evaluation report will be used by the Government to decide whether or not to renew casino licences.

Sir, why is the Evaluation Panel only focused on the economic benefits of the casinos? Shouldn’t it also evaluate the social and crime situation caused by the casinos? This would provide a more comprehensive report of the impact of the casinos, and enable a more holistic evaluation when assessing the applications for renewal of the casino licences.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mr Speaker, problem gambling is a terrible scourge in any society, cousin to alcoholism and drug abuse. The introduction of casinos seems to have sent a wrong signal that gambling can be glitzy and glamorous, or worse, part and parcel of a total family entertainment package.

Some 200,000 Singaporeans visited the casinos in 2010 (Huang 2012). We already have the dubious honour of the second highest gambling losses per capita, according to the Economist magazine (2011).

We must significantly step up our efforts to stem this rising tide, or risk seeing more and more people falling prey to gambling addiction at the hands of our two casinos.

References

Cohen, Muhammad. 2011. “Singapore casinos defy odds”. 28 June. Asia Times Online.

Department of Statistics Singapore (SingStat). 2012. “Yearbook of Statistics Singapore 2012”.

The Economist. 2011. “The biggest losers”. 16 May.

Huang, Lijie. 2012. “Fall in S’porean, PR numbers visiting casinos”. Straits Times. 24 February.

Lo, Shiu Hing. 2005. “Casino Politics, Organized Crime and the Post-Colonial State in Macau”. Journal of Contemporary China. Vol 14. Issue 43, pp 207-224.

National Council for Problem Gambling (NCPG). 2012. “Report of Survey on Participation in Gambling Activities among Singapore Residents, 2011”.

Ng, Kai Ling. 2012. “Green light for two junket operators”. Straits Times. 23 March.

Saad, Imelda. 2012. “Govt ‘anxiously’ watching effects of IRs”. TODAY. 13 October.

Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen). 2006. “Research on the Social Impacts of Gambling”

Tai, Janice. 2011. “More gamblers seek help for addiction”. Straits Times. 8 Sep.

Teo, Xuan Wei. 2012. “RWS fined again for levy breach ; Staff ran marketing scheme showering patrons with freebies for renewing levies”. TODAY. 13 September.

Wong, Chun Han. 2012. “Singapore Bets on Casino Revenues”. Wall Street Journal. 5 September.