There is much to celebrate in the fact that the proportion of hard-core gamblers has dropped to 0.7 per cent of the population. That statistic emerged from a national gambling survey that is carried out every three years. According to the survey, this is the lowest figure since the first poll in 2005, when the figure was 4.1 per cent. It fell to 2.9 per cent in 2008 and further to 2.6 per cent in 2011.
Each drop, but particularly the one from 2011 to 2014, is significant since it alludes to the cumulative effect of social policies designed to curb the consequences of gambling. The provision of Casino Exclusions and Visit Limits, social safeguards that could help to stop or limit problem gamblers and those in financial hardship from entering or frequenting casinos, would have contributed to a curtailing of gambling activity. However, lurking in the statistics is the discovery that those who are hooked are starting younger and gambling harder than before. What this suggests is that while Singaporeans as a whole are getting wiser about serious gambling, it has not lost its power to entice the young, who have yet to feel its poisonous sting.
One reason for this is the shifting of norms in a more affluent and technologically-advanced society. Parents who are willing to bail their children out of their gambling debts - to protect them from social stigma and to preserve their own authority as parents - postpone the eventual and often painful resolution of the habit.
Habits can take hold when casual games of chance insidiously develop into cravings for ever more risky dalliances with Lady Luck. Families might indulge in a round of cards during the festive season, but need to watch that the young ones don't get carried away. The occasional round of sports betting or hitting the jackpot machines as a form of leisure activity can inadvertently turn into problem gambling. Online betting, against which Singapore has acted, is a particularly insidious trap.
In the light of the current findings, the authorities need to target the anti- gambling message more closely at the young. As with older people facing this challenge, the objective would be to convince them that problem gambling is not a natural state of affairs. The more affected people seek help on the ground, recognising their addiction for what it is and not pretending that its effects can be reversed, the more effective will be the rehabilitative strategies deployed against this scourge. Problem gambling destroys the individual's sense of financial self-control and responsibility towards those closest to and most dependent on him. Due to its compulsive nature, such behaviour gets worse as time progresses. This could hobble a young person for many years, even for life.