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NEWS 25 October 2016

Why Singapore is at an online gambling crossroads

By Caroline Watson
Once considered a traditionally conservative Asian city-state, Singapore is expanding its wagering operations, paving for a gambling footprint on a global scale. It is now home to one of the world’s largest gaming destinations, Marina Sands Bay, however, a noticeable disparity between land-based operations and online betting exists today.

In previous years, Singapore cultivated a reputation for being a rather “strait-laced society”, with the government seeing the regulation of citizens’ behaviour essential to its success. However, the island nation has seen rising regional competition for its pillar industries, such as high-tech manufacturing and financial services, and has thus felt the need to diversify its economy.

The state lifted a decades-old ban on gambling as the threat of losing Asia’s battle for tourism forced the nation to reconsider. Now Singapore casino resorts are on “top of the minds of many leisure and business travellers and have received overwhelming and positive responses”.

As one of the most religiously diverse nations, it is no surprise that religious groups have spoken out about policy regulation as the gambling industry develops and expands. Whilst land-based casinos seem to be thriving in the “new Singapore”, online betting has faced recent backlashes.

Last week the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) expressed its concern over the government’s authorisation of online betting, appealing the government to review its decision on the matter.

The NCCS is appealing to the government to review the exemptions on online betting services given to Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club.

After the meeting, the council is recognising the Government’s decision as a “judgement call”. The group has finally acknowledged the government’s decision to allow online betting as the best approach to protect its citizens that are drawn to numerous gambling websites.

In a letter sent on Wednesday (19 October) to its members, an NCCS representative stated: “Given the data on the current remote gambling landscape, the government deems this to be the best approach to mitigate driving remote gambling activities underground and exacerbating law and order concerns.”

The NCCS is primarily concerned with the “confusing and conflicting signals” the government is sending with the partial lifting of the ban. However, the government explained this was not the case.

When the Remote Gambling Act was passed in 2014, it already had a provision to exempt operators as the government believed a complete ban would not work. The government maintains its stance with allowing exempt operators under stringent control will be the most effective approach to limit and contain adverse social consequences. This approach is not unique to Singapore as Hong Kong and Norway also allow regulated authorised operators.

Nonetheless, this decision has caused unrest in the NCCS. The Act, including the provision of exempt operators, was also discussed with social service leaders and religious representatives before it was passed.

Whilst the NCSS acknowledges the government’s attempts to provide safeguards against problem gambling, they remain concerned as the family and social fabric of Singapore is “currently not strong enough” to tackle potential issues arising.

Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC Director, Wai Ming Yap commented on the issue to Gambling Insider : “Singapore has set up the National Council on Problem Gambling to curb problem gambling, its primary focus has been on Singaporeans and Singapore residents, who have problem gambling issues.” This means that non-residents will essentially be “left out of the loop inadvertently”.

Whilst the new legislation will create a legitimate outlet to online gambling, Malaysian police have stated that they have no plans to propose a similar notion to its government to legalise online gambling.

Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, said they reached this conclusion after debating that there were already gaming activities in Malaysia, including four-digit betting.

The Singapore government stated that it will allow limited online betting in tightly controlled conditions in the Asian country, as it eases a law banning remote gambling. Khalid comments: “I think we have enough means for the people to gamble; we have Magnum, Toto and so on.

“You can go to Singapore to gamble (online), we will not interfere, but it is definitely an offense anywhere in Malaysia, even if using the facility from Singapore.”

Lau Kok Keng, Head at Intellectual Property, Sports & Gaming spoke to Gambling Insider commenting on the statement as “open to debate” if “one were to examine current Malaysian anti-gambling laws, and also what’s happening on the ground with other foreign operators.”

Further reiterating the notion that “Malaysia is echoing its anti-gambling stance in reliance on laws which were never intended to cover online gambling, and whose proper interpretation may be at odd with is official stance about online gambling with foreign operators being illegal.”

Whilst focussing on the imminent grant of exemptions for Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, Lau Kok Keng claims: “it is important to remember that the two operators have already been providing such betting and gaming services for decades.

“They are merely now permitted under a heavily regulated and tightly controlled environment, to offer their existing services on a new channel (i.e. online). Whilst all other online gambling activities are and remain illegal.”

So whilst it may seem that Singapore is becoming more lenient with online betting, this is wholly inaccurate. The new legislation has been put in place to regulate the online gambling industry and further protect Singaporeans with problem gambling issues.

Whilst land-based operations continue to thrive in the city, the same is not yet true for online betting. However, considering the First Prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew once said “over my dead body” at the prospect of allowing casinos in his nation, who knows what the future holds for online betting.
RELATED TAGS: Online | Land-Based | Legal & Regulatory | Casino
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