Government decision to allow online betting 'a judgement call': National Council of Churches of Singapore

The National Council of Churches of Singapore said it still has reservations about the Government's decision to allow online gambling.
The National Council of Churches of Singapore said it still has reservations about the Government's decision to allow online gambling.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Government has met with the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) after the religious body issued a statement two weeks ago (Oct 5) urging it to review its recent decision to allow two lottery operators here to offer online betting services.

Following the meeting, the council, which represents more than 250 churches, said in a letter issued to its members today (Oct 19), that it recognises that the Government's decision to allow this is a "judgement call".

NCCS said: "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 council said that following its initial statement, its representatives had a "candid and important face-to-face discussion" with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Social and Family Development.

NCCS noted that the Government "is willing to proactively strengthen the family and social environment" to prevent and mitigate the harmful consequences of online gambling.

The Government will be meeting with council leaders in the next three to six months "to take this further".

NCCS added that the Government acknowledges its deep concern over the negative social consequences of legalising the two remote gambling platforms and will be regularly monitoring the overall impact.

Last month, MHA gave the green light to allow Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club to run online betting services. These will be rolled out on Oct 25 and Nov 15 respectively.

The authorities' approval followed applications by the Singapore-based operators to be exempted from the Remote Gambling Act passed by Parliament two years ago. The Act outlaws all online and phone betting activities.

NCCS had said in its initial statement that the Government is sending "confusing and conflicting signals". However, the council acknowledged today (Oct 19) that when the Act was passed in 2014, the Government had said that some exemptions would be given as it did not think a complete ban will work.

The council also noted that the Act included the provision of exempt operators - something that had been discussed with social service leaders and representatives from religious bodies before it was tabled and passed by Parliament.

During the meeting, the Government maintained that allowing exempt operators to provide online gambling services under stringent controls is the best approach to limit and contain any adverse social consequences - a conclusion based on studies and its assessment of possible scenarios, said NCCS.

But the council added that it still has its reservations about this conclusion, arguing that the family and social fabric of Singapore is "currently not strong enough" to provide the safeguards against problem gambling.

It said that it will be rolling out a slew of measures to address the harmful consequences of online gambling.

The first is to set up a task force to explore ways to strengthen the family and Singapore's social fabric to mitigate gambling's harmful effects; to care for problem gamblers within and outside of their congregations; as well as to work with the Roman Catholic Church, other faith communities and the Government on this area.

The second is to publish a tract on gambling "that can be placed in the hands of every church member and can be used as the basis for teaching and discussion on the subject".

Lastly, the council aims to monitor the situation of online gambling closely and to provide feedback to authorities with the aid of its member churches.

Other religious bodies have weighed in on the issue as well. The Catholic Church on Oct 12 urged the Government to closely monitor the situation, and also requested for regular consultations and updates on the consequences of its decision.

Muslim leaders have also reminded the community on the ills of gambling - including online gambling, which they said is "firmly" prohibited in Islam.

In its letter today, NCCS said that it will always endeavour to "play its part as a responsible intermediate organisation to seek the welfare of our city-state and to work together with the government and other religious and grassroots organisations to promote the common good".