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The Straits Times says

Two-faced about one-armed bandits

Stringent rules are in place to ensure that Singapore's two casinos do not exacerbate problem gambling, which destroys individuals, families and, ultimately, the financial self-discipline of society. The public debate about casinos was quite intense at one point. The question now is whether society is being two-faced about fruit machines, which have quietly crept into many clubs and could also contribute to addictive behaviour.

Unlike the giant casinos, these outlets do not pose the challenge of scale, but their social influence is substantial because of their cumulative reach: about 82 venues hosting almost 1,900 jackpot machines. What makes them potentially pernicious is their unremarkable presence in neighbourhoods. They have become an inconspicuous part of the everyday landscape here.

A pragmatic approach to gambling acknowledges that it is an ineradicable human temptation - people can gamble in private about anything and illegal bookies are ever ready to help them punt. But there is also a belief here that the consequences of gambling are containable. Thus, the casinos are governed by rules for self-exclusion, family exclusion and third-party exclusion. The objective is to keep the vulnerable from self-harm while enabling the financially responsible to try their careful hand at a game of chance.

The same logic applies to the proposed tightening of rules to prevent the misuse of jackpot machines owned by football and social clubs. To be rolled out over the next two years, the regulations will raise the bar for securing jackpot machine permits, and introduce tighter quotas for the number of machines which a club can operate. Also, the minimum age for entering jackpot rooms will be raised from 18 to 21, and their operating hours will be restricted. With these measures, the number of machines could drop by around a third. All private clubs with jackpot machines will need to adopt a self-exclusion scheme. This protective mechanism and other measures will help those who congregate at clubs, like seniors, to be more mindful of the insidious effects of gambling and the social ills it can produce.

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The rules will also signal to football and social clubs that their primary goal should be to further their corporate mission in viable ways and not depend unduly on jackpot cash cows. A single football club reportedly earned more from its jackpot machines last year than the sports association's budget for the same period. That reveals how easy it is for money-making machines to overshadow an institution's primary purpose. Indeed, several football clubs have profited handsomely from their jackpot rooms without having played in the S-League for some years.

Society has closed one eye for long enough to the widespread use of jackpot machines. It is indeed time to subject them to stricter rules.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline 'Two-faced about one-armed bandits'. Print Edition | Subscribe