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Remote gambling laws to take effect next year

SINGAPORE — Laws to curb gambling via the phone or Internet are expected to take effect next year, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), after the Remote Gambling Bill was passed in Parliament yesterday — despite several Members of Parliament (MPs) voicing concerns about the provision for exempt operators and urging a total ban on remote gambling.

Remote gambling laws to take effect next year

A computer screen displays an online gambling website, Oct 2, 2006. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — Laws to curb gambling via the phone or Internet are expected to take effect next year, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), after the Remote Gambling Bill was passed in Parliament yesterday — despite several Members of Parliament (MPs) voicing concerns about the provision for exempt operators and urging a total ban on remote gambling.

The Act criminalises the entire spectrum of remote gambling, from individual gamblers to facilitators, and from runners to operators. It also provides for website and payment transactions to be blocked, and for a ban on advertisements.

The Government had declared that any operator authorised to offer remote gambling would be subject to stringent conditions, such as responsible gaming measures, and Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran also said at the start of the debate that exempt operators would not be allowed to offer casino-type games and poker.

While they supported the Bill, several MPs — among the 10 who spoke during the debate — questioned if the presence of exempt operators, which could be authorised to offer a Singapore-based remote gambling service to customers here, would send conflicting signals to the public.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher De Souza said: “On one hand, you have enforcement and punishment which rightly say remote gambling should be deterred. Yet, we are also saying there can be a medium through which remote gambling is legitimate.”

Gambling addiction does not stop when exempt operators enter the scene, said Hougang MP Png Eng Huat who, together with two Workers’ Party colleagues, Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, asked that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee to look into the provision for an exempt operator.

Mr Png said the convenience and danger of remote gambling could not be understated. Noting that punters have 4D, Toto and other gaming products, he asked: “Do we need a legalised betting outlet in every home as well?”

Urging a total ban on remote gambling, Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua added: “If, indeed, we so strongly believe remote gambling is harmful and does no good to either the people or nation, then are we legitimising the act of gambling and breeding its acceptance by legally providing for exempt licensed operators in (the Remote Gambling Bill)?”

Mr Iswaran replied that exemptions are not uncharted territory and apply to Singapore’s terrestrial gambling scene. This “tightly controlled valve” is not to condone or promote gambling, but is part of the ecosystem that seeks to minimise law and order concerns and social consequences, he said. A complete ban on remote gambling may create incentives for criminal syndicates to target Singapore, he said.

Exempt operators — which must be not-for-profit and face stiff penalties for flouting the rules — could be made to impose social safeguards, including minimum age requirements, allowing only preregistered users to access the service and not granting betting on credit, said Mr Iswaran.

Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club now allow registered customers to place bets via the phone or smart devices and less than 10 per cent of their turnover is from remote-gambling services. After the new law takes effect, they will be given six months to cease operations or apply for an exemption.

Given the “prohibitive regime” and prior consultations with stakeholders, Mr Iswaran said he did not see a need to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.

Weighing in during the debate, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing said the National Council on Problem Gambling is working with community service providers TOUCH and Fei Yue to develop new schemes to reach out to schools. Non-profit organisations have started exploring counselling through new methods such as via the Internet, he said.

If remote gambling cannot be eradicated, the authorities want to be able to monitor the problem and help those entrapped, said Mr Chan.

Last week, an international group representing the interests of social-game developers said the proposed laws could cramp innovation and stifle Singapore’s fledgling digital video-game industry. Mr Iswaran explained that the Bill does not target social games where players do not play for the chance of acquiring money and where the design of games does not allow players to convert game credits into money or real merchandise.

But the line between social gaming and gambling is blurring, he said, adding that the new laws must be comprehensive in scope to regulate a sector that is fast changing.

The MHA has formed a unit to develop capabilities to monitor gambling sites and related payment mechanisms. Working with the police, it will use third-party resources and build on collaborations with regulators in other jurisdictions to track remote-gambling trends and best practices. The list of websites blocked will be updated regularly and sites of Virtual Private Network service providers aimed at bypassing Singapore’s blocking measures for remote gambling will be blocked too, Mr Iswaran said.

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