Insidious threat of online gaming

The Government's move to restrict unauthorised online gambling in Singapore is necessary as it is growing at an alarming rate. About US$416 million (S$521 million) was gambled away by local online punters this year, up from US$383 million last year, with over 95 per cent of revenues winding up in the hands of operators abroad.

The need to regulate gambling has been reflected in laws over the last five decades, which make both the provision of gambling and the act of gambling illegal, unless authorised, under pain of fines and imprisonment. It is considered a public nuisance in threatening the morals, safety and welfare of the community, and its aggravated forms have been linked to serious crimes and destructive problem gambling that are difficult to eradicate. To prevent such activities from going underground entirely and becoming harder to control, licensed forms of gambling were permitted. The casinos, in particular, whose controversial arrival in Singapore divided public opinion sharply along moral and utilitarian lines, witnessed strong arguments being made against official acquiescence in gambling, despite the larger economic case for allowing casinos to operate under strict conditions.

Arguments for liberalisation are based on contemporary social attitudes - while almost all acknowledge the potential harm of gambling, seven in 10 people believe that doing it once in a while and not excessively is acceptable. With six in 10 considering Singapore Sweep, 4D and Toto as leisure activities, there is a view that criminalising similar forms of online gambling would be draconian and expose casual punters to the jeopardy of imprisonment - up to six months, as under older laws.

On the flip side, social ills must be considered like the insinuation of gaming into apps aimed at the young, financial ruin caused by runaway gambling, use of loan sharks, and misery heaped on innocent families. The risks are ominous. Nearly 40 per cent of online gamblers tend to overestimate their wins and underestimate their losses, as psychological studies have shown.

These are among the justifications for the measures framed in the Remote Gambling Bill, tabled in Parliament last week, which are said to be among the toughest in the world. It will ban advertisements, block access to unauthorised online gambling websites, and block money transfers to and from such sites.

As betting gets pervasive, aided by technology and the boldness of operators who duck local laws by acting virtually, states and citizens cannot afford to take a laissez-faire approach to online gambling. While allowing some channels for "having a flutter", its regulation must remain steadfast and be updated regularly.