Heated exchange on bid to allow limited online gambling

Gamblers still find ways to bet online despite websites being blocked, said Mr Lee.
Gamblers still find ways to bet online despite websites being blocked, said Mr Lee.ST POSED PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Desmond Lee rebuts WP accusation that Govt was exempting local operators to make money

Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh yesterday accused the Government of allowing lottery operators Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club to offer legal online gambling in order to "make more money" .

In an adjournment motion in Parliament, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said there has been a "glaring lack of clarity" as to how the Government is preparing to address "the scourge of online gambling".

This drew a sharp response from Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee, who said it was the "most disturbing thing I've heard this evening".

He called upon Mr Singh's Workers' Party to make clear its position on online gambling and give specific suggestions on what should be done instead.

In a 20-minute-long speech, Mr Singh raised numerous questions about the Government's decision in September to exempt the two operators from the Remote Gambling Act. He said the most common reaction he has heard from Singaporeans is that the Government "just wants to make more money".

THE WORRY

Local gambling apps that have a stamp of approval by the Government will attract people who have previously never gambled online. It may include many young people who may not relish queueing up at Toto outlets or going to the races at the Turf Club but may experiment with gambling for the first time from the privacy of their phones.

MR PRITAM SINGH (Aljunied GRC).


TOTAL PROHIBITION WON’T HELP

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.

MR DESMOND LEE, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs.

Mr Singh added: "Is providing for exempt operators a way to redirect gambling spending away from illegal overseas operators to local operators which are owned by the Tote Board?"

He said the argument that the Tote Board gives money to charities is "morally questionable" and "akin to saying that it is okay to harm some people in order to help others".

He refused to accept the argument that the exempt operators allow the Government to manage crime associated with gambling and added that legalising online gambling will more likely attract first-time gamblers.

But Mr Lee pointed out that illicit online gambling was growing worldwide and Singapore would not be spared. Gamblers still found ways to bet online despite hundreds of websites being blocked. A total ban would drive the problem further underground.

"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," he said.

Mr Singh had "made rather serious allegations about the motivation of the Government", he added.

Mr Lee also noted that during the second reading of the Remote Gambling Act in 2014, Mr Singh had pushed for a total ban on online gambling.

In the same debate, Workers' Party's Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) contradicted Mr Singh and said the ban will drive the problem underground.

Said Mr Lee: "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 don't think we are any wiser."

He asked the Workers' Party to put on the table specific suggestions on how a total ban on online gambling would work. "For example, do you support a complete ban on VPN and technology that skirts around blocking measures?"

Mr Lee did not get a response as time ran out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Heated exchange on bid to allow limited online gambling'. Print Edition | Subscribe