Counsellors, MPs call for tighter rules on jackpot operations

Only 24 out of about 90 clubs with jackpot rooms participate in the National Council on Problem Gambling's self-exclusion scheme. And memberships to clubs can be obtained on the spot for as low as $5.
Only 24 out of about 90 clubs with jackpot rooms participate in the National Council on Problem Gambling's self-exclusion scheme. And memberships to clubs can be obtained on the spot for as low as $5. ST FILE PHOTO

Clubs need safeguards to deter gambling addicts, ensure profits used for core purpose

Nestled in heartland football stadiums, suburban malls and social clubs are private clubhouses with jackpot rooms filled with jingling fruit machines.

An ongoing probe by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) into the suspected misuse of funds by Tiong Bahru Football Club (TBFC) has placed such operations under scrutiny.

While jackpot operations are a cash cow for clubs, Members of Parliament and gambling counsellors warn that these venues provide an easy and accessible outlet for gambling.

They called for additional safeguards to prevent gambling addicts from frequenting such places, and for tighter regulations to ensure profits earned from jackpot operations go towards funding a club's core purpose.

"We must be keenly aware that easy access and proliferation of such jackpot machines can contribute to gambling addiction," said MP Desmond Choo, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law.

Football clubs have been using jackpot operations to fund football activities for more than two decades. The Straits Times has reported that jackpot revenue helps cover around a third of an S-League club's operating cost.

TBFC, a modest side playing in the National Football League, raked in $36.8 million last year from its 29 jackpot machines.

 
 

The sum has raised eyebrows as it was significantly higher than what clubs in the top-tier S-League made - about 10 times more than what local football powerhouse Tampines Rovers earned in the 2013/2014 financial year.

TBFC's clubhouse and two others were raided by the CAD last Thursday. The club's chairman, Mr Bill Ng, his wife, Ms Bonnie Wong, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) general secretary Winston Lee and former Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP and FAS president Zainudin Nordin have been arrested and questioned.

Football clubs like TBFC and other registered societies that want to run jackpot operations have to apply for a private lottery permit from the police.

But while the permit conditions state that entry is for members only, signing up is easy and inexpensive - checks by The Straits Times found membership can be obtained on the spot for as low as $5. This is unlike the integrated resorts, which charge a $100 levy to enter the casino.

MP Zainal Sapari acknowledged that jackpot activities are important revenue generators for clubs here, and said any heavy-handed clampdown would significantly affect their bottom lines. Even so, more safeguards are needed to prevent addicts from gambling in jackpot rooms, he said.

Mr Choo said one starting point could be to broaden casino exclusion orders to include all jackpot rooms, and introduce visit limits.

Currently, punters or their family members can apply with the National Council on Problem Gambling to be excluded from only 24 clubs.

 

  • 1,400 

    Approximate number of people who have applied to be excluded from jackpot venues here. 90 Approximate number of private clubs with jackpot rooms.

    2,000 

    Approximate number of jackpot machines here outside of the casinos.

    9.5% 

    Proportion of the total amount wagered by players on jackpot machines that clubs have to pay as tax.

The Straits Times reported in 2014 that there were 93 such jackpot venues here, with about 2,000 fruit machines. Companies that supply jackpot machines said this number has remained stable.

Official data shows that betting taxes collected by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) have grown steadily over the years, reaching $2.7 billion in the 2015/2016 financial year.

That figure includes casino tax, betting duty and private lotteries duty - the tax levied on jackpot clubs. But Iras declined to provide a breakdown of tax numbers, citing commercial sensitivity.

Mr Billy Lee, executive director of Blessed Grace Social Services, estimates that about 10 per cent of the gambling addicts he sees have patronised jackpot clubs - including those run by football clubs. He called them a "back door" for addicts banned from the casinos.

Like other observers, he reckons that greater oversight is needed to ensure profits from jackpot operations go towards funding a club's core purpose.

For instance, Sinchi FC still maintains a clubhouse with six machines at Sultan Plaza even though it last played in the S-League in 2005.

Mr Billy Lee, executive director of Blessed Grace Social Services, estimates that about 10 per cent of the gambling addicts he sees have patronised jackpot clubs - including those run by football clubs. He called them a "back door" for addicts banned from the casinos.

The club had a gross income of $165,625, according to their latest returns filed with the Registry of Societies.

It was last reported in 2012 that the Chinese club's jackpot revenue was being used to pay off debts, but little is known of its footballing activities.

Said Mr Zainal: "If a football club has no more team, then the licence for it to run a jackpot room should be withdrawn."

MP Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the GPC for Social and Family Development, agreed that regulations governing jackpot clubs need to be updated.

"If there is anything good coming out of this, I think it's that it calls for an urgent review of the status quo," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2017, with the headline 'Counsellors, MPs call for tighter rules on jackpot operations'. Print Edition | Subscribe