Read and Think!

Post date: Jul 10, 2012 1:28:13 AM

Whose problem is problem gambling?

Tan Dawn Wei Assistant News Editor

The Straits Times

8 July 2012

Govt is doing its best to beef up safeguards but ultimately the individual must be responsible

Singapore's policymakers have always served the two integrated resorts (IR) on a platter of promise, that they will bring about huge economic gains, jobs and put the island-state on the world map.

On that front, they haven't performed too shabbily, generating more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs between them, and sweetening the national kitty to the tune of 1 to 11/2 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

They also helped pull in a record 13.2 million tourists last year, a 36 per cent jump in the number of foreign visitors from 2009.

But behind the rosy picture lies the very real threat of the casinos creating a host of social ills.

When the Casino Control Act was first tabled in 2006, debates about it in Parliament had, unsurprisingly, revolved around how Singaporeans would be 'protected', since the IRs are really meant for foreigners.

So social safeguards were introduced, and extended along the way. Those on long-term public assistance and undischarged bankrupts were immediately shut out. The ban was later broadened to include those given short- and medium-term help, as well as HDB dwellers paying subsidised rates for their rental flats, and with rental arrears of six months or more.

Gambling addicts could also volunteer to be barred, or their families could take out an exclusion order for them. Then, there were other measures, such as preventing junket operators from luring Singaporeans to the casinos, and putting the brakes on free shuttle buses ferrying people from the heartland to the resorts.

Even so, nagging concerns still linger over the social ills - debts, suicides, crime - that gambling at casinos will bring.

The casino levy was and still is contentious. Some thought $100 a day wasn't enough of a deterrent and should therefore be raised. Others argued that raising it would simply lead punters to put more money on the table to try to recoup the fee, maximise it by playing as long as possible, or go to the casinos as frequently as possible if they had paid the annual $2,000 levy. They are already doing that, these people argued.

But there is no room to raise the entry levies, since the Government has a contractual agreement with the two IRs that it will not do so for a period of 10 years.

Rather than imposing a blanket ban, the authorities have chosen a more calibrated approach that might sit better with the general public.

So now, another group will get their punting rights docked: Frequent visitors - those who visit casinos at least six to 10 times a month - who can ill afford to splash the cash on the chips.

Whether the state is acting too much like a nanny and impinging on its citizens' civil liberties is something that will always be up for discourse, as long as you are forcibly keeping some people out and not others, making some pay for entry and not others.

In this case, the issue of intrusiveness will surely come up since the plan is for the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) to make punters show proof - possibly through bank statements, checks with family members and the Credit Bureau - that they don't need help.

It is a pre-emptive strike - identify this group of potential problem gamblers before they develop those symptoms, even though the council says problem gambling isn't quite a problem yet.

Its survey last year of 3,315 Singaporean residents aged 18 and over found that only 1.2 per cent were 'probable problem gamblers'.

That means they were beginning to display a need to gamble bigger amounts of money to get a high. A similar survey in 2008 showed that 1.7 per cent were in this category.

Those who showed signs of addictive gambling also stayed stable - 1.4 per cent, up from 1.2 per cent in 2008.

But the study also showed that these pathological problem gamblers were betting larger amounts, and doing it more frequently.

So will this latest round of revisions to the Casino Control Act work? And how do you measure the success of these social safeguards?

Will such a move simply drive this Government-termed 'financially vulnerable' group to punt elsewhere? Problem gamblers weren't born within the four walls of the two casinos here. Social workers were already dealing with addicts who lost their life savings on soccer bets and horse racing, long before the two IRs rolled out the red carpet.

And after this latest group, whom will the authorities target next? The disquiet in some quarters could be that the authorities will get more and more intrusive, but there will probably be an equal, if not larger, number of people who will welcome more rigorous gate-keeping.

The Government, too, has long acknowledged that it has to strike a fine balance between over-regulating and protecting its more vulnerable citizens.

But the longer-term question will likely be: How long can or should the Government continue to do this?

Singaporeans have long relied heavily on a higher authority to look out for them. And the situation will continue to be so as long as the Government keeps beefing up social safeguards and making the casinos police more stringently.

It has already signalled to the two players, with a proposed amendment to the Bill: Better be on your toes or we will whack you with a big stick.

How big? Previously, the pair of betting houses could at most be fined $1 million for any transgression - chump change for the twosome, whose combined gross gaming revenue last year topped nearly $6 billion.

If the amendment is passed in Parliament, one bad miss could make any one of them more than $200 million poorer.

No one will likely quibble with the ramped-up penalties for the casino operators. But no family members of alcoholics would blame the Government for making booze available either.

At the end of the day, it has to come down to personal responsibility.


- How far should the government go in regulating visits to casinos among the citizens? Is it intrusive? Is it necessary? Does it impinge on people's civil liberties?

- What are some of the social safeguards mentioned in the article above?

- Which are the groups of people mentioned in the article above that are identified as vulnerable?

- "The Government, too, has long acknowledged that it has to strike a fine balance between over-regulating and protecting its more vulnerable citizens.

But the longer-term question will likely be: How long can or should the Government continue to do this?"

What is considered "over-regulating"?