Govt's decision on online betting a 'judgment call'

A man looking at Singapore Pools website on a tablet.
A man looking at Singapore Pools website on a tablet. PHOTO: ST FILE

Church body adds that Govt acknowledges its deep concern and will monitor impact

The Government has met the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), in the wake of a statement by the religious body urging the authorities to review the decision to allow two operators to offer online betting services.

After the meeting, the council, which represents more than 250 churches here, said yesterday it now recognises that the Government's decision is a "judgment call".

In a new statement to its members, 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 Government acknowledges the council's deep concern about the negative social consequences of legalising two remote gambling platforms, and will regularly monitor the overall impact."

The council had put out an initial statement two weeks ago, saying it "finds it difficult" to accept the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) rationale that a complete ban would only drive remote gambling underground, making it harder to detect. This "cannot be the best option for Singapore", the NCCS said then.

  • NCCS says:

  • JUDGMENT CALL

    The council recognises that the Government's decision to allow authorised operators to provide online betting services under stringent controls and safeguards is a judgment call.


    PLANS FOR MITIGATING MEASURES

    The Government is willing to proactively strengthen the family and social environment to prevent and mitigate the harmful consequences of online gambling. The Government has proposed to meet NCCS leaders in three to six months' time to take this further.

Since then, its representatives have had a "candid and important face-to-face discussion" with MHA and the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said the council.

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

The Government has proposed to meet council leaders in the next three to six months "to take this further".

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

The authorities' approval followed applications by the local operators to be exempted from the Remote Gambling Act passed by Parliament two years ago, banning phone and online gambling.

NCCS was the first religious body to weigh in, saying the Government is sending "confusing and conflicting signals".

Yesterday, the council said that at the meeting, the Government explained this was not the case. This is because when the Act was passed in 2014, the authorities had already said some exemptions would be given as they did not think a complete ban would work.

The Act, including the provision of exempt operators, was also discussed with social service leaders and religious representatives before it was passed.

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

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 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 care for problem gamblers within and outside of their congregations; and 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 the authorities with the aid of its member churches.

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

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

In its letter, NCCS said 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".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'Govt's decision on online betting a 'judgment call''. Print Edition | Subscribe