Published: 07 November 2016
1. I thank the Member for raising concerns about the Exempt Operator regime that was discussed and debated in 2014, in which the Member and many of his colleagues from the Workers Party had actively participated, as did a number of them in the last parliamentary session in October.
2. He has raised numerous questions and made rather serious allegations about the motivation of the Government, whether it consulted several parties, whether the Government trivialises the risks posed to Singaporeans from online gambling. The picture he has painted is all the more disturbing, notwithstanding all that we have put out and put in place, to tackle precisely what he has said, the scourge of gambling and the scourge of online gambling.
3. Madam, we could spend all of our time this evening and more, looking at reports and studies highlighted in previous sessions, comparing and contrasting, picking through the data and methodology, both in relate to precedents that we have looked at, as well as local data.
4. This is by no means an unimportant task. The Member is calling for transparency, but I think this is better suited to written replies to written PQs, which the Member can file. In fact, I understand Mr Leon Perera has filed a question about both the experience in Hong Kong and Norway. We have a comprehensive reply for it.
5. I propose we use the remaining time and keep our eyes focused on the big picture, which is precisely what the Member is concerned about. Both the Government and the Opposition both agree that online gambling addiction poses serious problems that we are all concerned about, notwithstanding the Member's assertion that the Government is completely unconcerned and is trying to make money out of this. It is the most disturbing thing that I have heard this evening.
6. Madam, individuals can get seriously addicted, and cause harm to themselves, their family and society. Members from across the aisle have both spoken about the harm. I think Members like Ms Denise Phua would be very concerned if the impression is that she and the other Members are not concerned.
7. From a law and order perspective, illegal online gambling has links and associations with syndicates and organised crime, including transnational organised crime. In November 2015, the South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese police busted a multinational online gambling syndicate which allegedly generated more than US$78 billion in bets and served nearly a million registered members in China alone. How big is this problem? Let us run through some of the key points again, which we have raised them previously.
8. First, there is a large global market for online gambling. It was estimated at US$40 billion in 2015, and grew annually at 6-8% over last 5 years. If this carries on, it will double in about 10 years. With Singapore's high internet and smartphone penetration rate and tech savvy population, I do not think we will be spared from this global trend.
9. Since 2015, Police arrested more than 120 people for illegal online gambling in Singapore. The Members heard this data last month. Since the RGA came into force, Singapore has one of the most extensive and proactive set of measures in the world against online gambling, such as the blocking of sites, blocking of payments, blocking of advertisements and criminalising users who go on online websites.
10. Yet, as the member also accepts in 2014, with VPN and other technology, and with new sites popping up every day, illicit online gambling still exists in Singapore. I mentioned the South China Morning Post report - that syndicate is alleged to have operated over 500 sites at the point of investigation. Some analysts estimate that in Singapore in 2015, online gambling amounted to S$461million. MHA continues to see internet traffic from Singapore to blocked sites and new sites. The Police observe trends in recent years of organised crime syndicates in Singapore moving from the terrestrial gambling sphere to online gambling. They are moving their modus operandi, and arrests continue to be made for illegal gambling – both syndicates and punters alike. In 2015, about 90% of those arrested for illegal football gambling were involved in online football gambling. More than one-third of those arrested for illegal lotteries were involved in online remote lotteries. So I do not think the member is right to suggest that we are unaware of the risk of online gambling. In fact, all that has been in place since 2014 is to deal with this scourge of online gambling.
11. Online gambling sites are attracting younger Singaporeans as the member also accepts: — a study prior to the passage of the Remote Gambling Act found that about two-thirds of respondents who had participated in remote gambling were between 25 to 44 years of age. Our assessment is that this problem will still grow in Singapore, and a total ban on its own will not be sufficient to deal with this problem, however much we believe that to be so.
12. So we need to ask Mr Singh, and his colleagues from the Workers' Party: Do you accept that the trend of illicit online gambling is growing, worldwide? Do you accept that given how open and wired Singapore is, we will not be spared from problem? Do you accept that, even with extensive blocking systems as is the case now, illicit online gambling is still present in Singapore, and problem can still grow?
13. If answer is "yes", then question is what the solution ought to be.
14. The Government's view is that a comprehensive system is needed to tackle this problem (as Mr Singh said, upstream, downstream, mid-stream) which has a law and order dimension, as well as a social dimension. We have tackled both. What we have put in place is a broad and extensive prohibition against online gambling, and an exempt operator valve that comes with social safeguards and an exclusion system; set amidst public education and outreach, counselling, etc.
15. Madam Speaker, our concern is that a total prohibition will only drive the problem further underground, making it harder to detect, with problems surfacing too late. Trends and observations show that. This broadly mirrors the approach that we have taken for terrestrial gambling. So we need a valve – legal, run by non-profit organisations, where people have to sign up so we know who they are, with mechanisms to promote responsible gaming, for us to try to intervene early before the problem gets out of hand.
16. We also intend to work with the exempt operators to study the impact: whether there is displacement; what is online gambling prevalence after the scheme is put in place, and then whether further tweaks / adjustments / changes to our policy need to be undertaken.
17. What has been the Workers' Party's proposal on the online gambling problem thus far? In 2014, during the Second Reading of the Remote Gambling Act, many Members of the Workers' Party in this House spoke and opposed the exemption regime but did not offer many details of alternative solutions to eradicate social ills caused by online gambling.
18. Mr Pritam Singh in particular, pushed for a total ban on online gambling, and he does not believe that a total ban will push the problem underground. While Mr Yee Jenn Jong made suggestions on how the Exempt Operator regime could be tightened if it was implemented.
19. In the Workers' Party 2015 Manifesto, the Workers' Party had one line, or a couple of lines on online gambling – prohibit all online gambling; no exceptions. Its aim was to "eradicate the social ills caused by online and remote gambling". We presume in 2015, the Workers' Party objective and proposal to Singaporeans was to drive online gambling in Singapore to zero, through a total ban.
20. In its 27 September 2016 press release, the Workers' Party opposed the granting of exemption to any organisation but did not offer a solution to eradicate the social ills caused by online gambling.
21. Madam Speaker, the Workers' Party says a complete and total ban is the best - no need for a valve with social safeguards. They say that these safeguards generate money – we should not tax, we should not put it to good use, we should not get involved in having any safety valve, any social safeguards. But Madam Speaker, their position is not clear, for a number of reasons which I shall submit.
22. First, they do not cite any precedent or any country in the world where a complete ban has solved this growing problem of online gambling addiction.
23. Second, they do not explain why Singapore's approach, and those like Norway and Hong Kong, which we have adapted our system from and which have valves, are inferior.
24. Third, the Workers' Party's rationale is problematic. During the Second Reading of the Act in 2014, Mr Singh said that a total ban will notdrive online gambling underground. Whereas Mr Png Eng Huat contradicted him in the very same debate, where he said categorically, that a ban will drive the problem underground. I quote, "It is the law of nature".
25. So Madam Speaker, what is the Workers' Party's true position on this matter? Even after this evening, even after the allegations have been made about the Government's intentions, I do not think we are any wiser.
26. Mr Singh's explanation was that with a total ban, most gamblers, he said, would just go to the existing land-based outlets such as authorised 4-D/TOTO shops which are completely legal and regulated. But this is not the view of the professionals and the Police, who have seen the problem go underground and who say that this will happen and has happened.
27. So it is imperative, as Mr S Iswaran has said in 2014, for Mr Singh making these assertions on causation, flying in the face of what the Police have observed and say is happening, the professionals – to provide evidence at stake that a total ban will not drive illegal activities underground but will instead drive it through the TOTO shops, land-based.
28. Fourth, apart from what we've just talked about, there are no details in their manifesto, media releases and speeches on how their proposal of a complete ban will solve this real problem inflicted on many Singaporeans, some whom we have met at Meet-the-People sessions.
29. This, after two years of debate since the Act was enacted in 2014. First, we invite the Workers' Party to make clear what its position is. Is it an objection in principle, against all gambling? If it is a matter of principle, then state it is so, both terrestrial and remote.
30. But if it is against online gambling, then it is an assessment of where the risks are. And as I've said earlier, we have the views of the Police and the professionals.
31. In such a case, it would be good if Workers' Party can put on the table specific suggestions on how a total ban would solve the problem and drive the problem from online to the land-based terrestrial outlets that Mr Singh had categorically said in 2014. For example, do you support a complete ban on VPN and technology that skirts around blocking measures?
32. Second, that law as deterrence is not just the law and deterrence, but the likelihood of getting caught. Are they proposing to have apps or tracking devices uploaded onto computers or smartphones to monitor people and further detect if they are going onto illicit sites? And perhaps after that, do you propose to make it mandatory for persons to undergo counselling? Or are youproposing to increase penalties and prosecution rates, and to ask for deterrent sentences? If so, what do you suggest?
33. How will you make the prohibition and the enforcement of the prohibition such as to promote the flow of the people from the illicit sites online to the 4-D/TOTO sites on land? Or are you proposing to expand outreach and education or make counselling mandatory, and if so, do you believe that this will solve the problem?
34. Madam, we have circulated the handout with some of the things we have been doing, and perhaps the Member can suggest how those can concretely be further improved.
35. Madam, the Government is not able to solve complex social problems through making speeches alone, or by lamenting a problem. We are expected to put forward workable solutions for consultation and debate and we have to implement a solution.
36. It has to be practical, and may not always be popular but we have to try to solve the problem pragmatically, and most importantly, be prepared to adjust our solution along the way, based on experience and our findings.
37. Madam Speaker, in conclusion, online gambling is a global phenomenon. It grows at a very fast rate. It is not a problem outside Singapore – it is right here on our shores, in our homes, in people's pockets when they walk around, when they work, when they are at home.
38. It poses law and order and social problems as I have said before. Online gambling is associated with syndicates and organised crime. Banning online gambling will help slow the pace of growth. On its own, it is inadequate; because the problem will go deeper as we will simply be burying our heads in the sand.
39. A valve may allow people who intend to gamble online to do so in an environment with some social safeguards, and we can track the size and shape of the problem.
40. Madam Speaker, for those who don't want their loved ones to even visit these regulated sites, speak to them, put them onto the exclusion list. For those of us in this house and outside who have moral objections to gambling including some of us who have spoken, don't visit, discourage your friends and family, and help the National Council on Problem Gambling and voluntary welfare organisations who work hard day after day, to tackle the social aspect and scourge of problem gambling.