SINGAPORE - The Remote Gambling Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday, in spite of a more than three hour debate involving 10 Members of Parliament, during which a number expressed reservations against the allowance for exemptions under the law.
Three Workers' Party MPs who spoke - Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constitutency MP Yee Jenn Jong - asked for the Bill to be placed before a Select Committee to gather more feedback.
Others, like PAP MP Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), asked if the exemptions send a mixed signal by "legitimising the act of gambling and breeding its acceptance by legally providing for exempt licensed operators".
Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran said that placing the Bill before a Select Committee was not necessary because it has already undergone public consultations.
He said that the new regime is consistent with the prohibitive approach towards gambling and is "not new or unchartered territory".
Under the law, applicants who want to apply for an online gambling licence have to meet strict criteria - be based in Singapore, be not for profit, contribute to a social cause, and have a good compliance track record.
"When you look at our experience in terrestial gambling environment we seek to maintain law and order, criminalise range of activities and allowed for tight controls not because we wish to promote it or condone it," said Mr Iswaran, adding that exemptions were granted to allow the Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club to be set up in the 1960s amid triads and underground activity.
"It is part of an ecosystem that minimises the law and order concerns and social consequences concerned about," he said, adding that the law provides enforcement agencies with the wherewithal to deal with the problems.
Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing also weighed in, saying that his ministry will step up public education and awareness efforts.
"We have to stay alert to the challenges that emerge every day and to stay abreast of the technological changes and to stay abreast of the evolving challenges," Mr Chan said.
Mr Iswaran said the new law brings online gambling in line with laws for terrestrial gambling in Singapore: "We prohibit gambling, unless it is specifically allowed for by way of a stringently regulated exemption or license. We will adopt a similar approach to remote gambling."
Illustrating the lucrative nature of remote gambling operations, Mr Iswaran earlier cited a recent Interpol operation during the Fifa World Cup when law enforcement agencies in six Asian countries, including Singapore, made more than 1,000 raids and 1,400 arrests. These organised crime syndicates had handled about US$2.2 billion (S$2.81 billion) worth of bets through illegal websites.
He allayed concerns that the Bill could inadvertently affect social and video games. He said it would not as long as players "cannot convert in-game credits or tokens for money or real merchandise outside the game".
Emphasising the need for broad laws, he said: "What may be benign today may appear more sinister tomorrow."