Social gambling to be legalised in S'pore, gambling regulation body to be set up under proposed Bills

If passed, newly proposed laws will set clear parameters for what is acceptable. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

SINGAPORE - In a move that takes a strict but pragmatic approach to dealing with gambling, physical social gambling among family and friends may soon be legalised under new laws proposed in Parliament on Monday (Feb 14).

While not currently illegal, social gambling is not clearly defined in current laws. If passed, newly proposed laws will set clear parameters for what is acceptable.

The Gambling Regulatory Authority of Singapore Bill and the Gambling Control Bill were read in Parliament for the first time on Monday.

The Bills set out clearer regulations for gambling, including the newer forms brought about by technology such as loot boxes in video games and mystery boxes.

Currently, gambling here is regulated by various government agencies including the Casino Regulatory Authority, the Tote Board and the Singapore Police Force.

If passed, the Bills will see the setting up of the new Gambling Regulation Authority (GRA), which will regulate the entire gambling landscape in Singapore.

A key change under the new Bills is the legalisation of physical social gambling among family and friends, without any age limit.

The conditions include the participants being members of the same family or friends, the gambling cannot be conducted in the course of any business and it takes place in an individual's home.

Online social gambling, however, continues to be prohibited.

Another key proposed change is the introduction of licensing regimes for gambling products.

The GRA will take over regulation from the different agencies for key products such as fruit machines, gambling in private establishments and Singapore Pools products via a licensing framework.

The GRA will also introduce licensing for lower-risk products such as mystery boxes, online games with gambling elements and lucky draws. Operators offering such products will not be individually licensed, but the GRA will maintain oversight and introduce safeguards such as capping prizes at $100 for mystery boxes. This is to ensure such products do not induce gambling behaviour and cause social problems.

Several new offences will be introduced in the new Bills, including those relating to underage gambling and those who have been excluded from gambling.

Operators found to have allowed underage or excluded individuals to gamble will be liable for an offence or disciplinary action.

The minimum age to gamble will be set at 21, with the exception of Singapore Pools, which have a minimum age of 18 for its products and outlets.

Excluded individuals will also be allowed to physically enter and purchase products from Singapore Pools.

A new offence of proxy gambling will also be introduced, to criminalise gambling through someone else.

The new Bills also propose a three-tiered penalty framework to deal with offenders according to their culpability. Operators will be deemed as having the highest culpability, followed by their agents and then the punters.

Mandatory imprisonment has been proposed for operators and agents for both physical and online gambling.

There will also be longer imprisonment terms and higher fines for repeat offenders to send a strong deterrent signal.

On the advertising and promotion front, a consistent threshold will be applied for both online and physical gambling, with the offences for both types treated the same.

In a release on Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said it aims to set up the GRA in the middle of this year.

"To stay ahead of technological and global trends, respond more adequately to emerging gambling products, and take a more holistic and coherent approach to gambling policies and issues, we should rationalise and consolidate," it said.

"We allow some forms of gambling in a controlled and safe environment, as total prohibition will drive even more gambling underground. Our approach aims to minimise the social harms of gambling, and maintain law and order."

Problem gambling appears to be under control in Singapore, with the number of people arrested for unlawful gambling activities remaining stable at about 1,000 a year from 2011 to 2020.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling's (NCPG) Gambling Participation Surveys, problem and pathological gambling rates have also remained stable, falling from about 3 per cent in 2008 to around 1 per cent for the past five years.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said in a statement that in tandem with the introduction of the Bills, it will strengthen social safeguards for gambling.

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said the ministry strongly supports the legislative enhancements made by the MHA.

"MSF will also strengthen social safeguards to protect those who are financially vulnerable and receiving financial support," he said.

"We will continue to partner social service agencies that provide gambling rehabilitation programmes, and work closely with the NCPG to provide upstream preventative education."

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