FAS saga: Football's link to jackpot machines goes back to 90s

Clubs that have not played in the S-League for years are still profiting from the machines

Tiong Bahru Football Club posted annual takings of $36.8 million last year from its 29 jackpot machines - more than the FAS' budget in the same period.
Tiong Bahru Football Club posted annual takings of $36.8 million last year from its 29 jackpot machines - more than the FAS' budget in the same period.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The link between football and jackpot machines goes back to the days before professional football started in Singapore in the 1990s, but it is under serious scrutiny now following reports of Tiong Bahru Football Club's (TBFC) $36.8 million annual takings last year from its 29 jackpot machines, which is more than the budget of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) in the same period.

Yesterday, members of one of the two teams competing for the top posts in the FAS admitted it has little hold on the clubs, outside of the competitions, and cannot require a club to contribute a fixed amount of its jackpot operations towards football.

There is a misconception about the amount of control the FAS has over the clubs, said former FAS vice-president Bernard Tan, who is running for the position of deputy president on one team, but Saturday's elections could provide the opportunity to correct this.

Former TBFC general manager Richard Woon told The Straits Times yesterday how the club grew to be a jackpot powerhouse while its amateur football team plays in the second-tier National Football League."I believe we are the first club to have jackpot machines. We applied for the licence around 1990. We had five machines when we started, but it was to raise funds for the club. We wanted enough to run the club," he said.

TBFC's model worked and was subsequently copied by more clubs when the professional S-League was launched in 1996.

  • ST Explainer: Key questions on jackpot rooms

  • Q Is a permit required to run a jackpot room?

    A Yes, under the Private Lotteries Act, a private lottery permit from the Police Licensing and Regulatory Department is needed to operate a fruit machine. Permits cost $195 per year.

    Q What kind of club or society is allowed to run a jackpot room?

    A Societies - which can include clubs - must be registered with the Registry of Societies or another relevant authority, and must have at least 500 voting members at all times.

    These societies must not have been established for purposes connected with gaming, wagering or lotteries.

    The Constitution of the society or club also must not prohibit gambling or private lotteries.

    Registered charities cannot run jackpot rooms.

    Q Are there regulations surrounding how jackpot rooms can operate?

    A Police regulations state that at least two other recreational facilities need to be in operation at the clubhouse during the operating hours of the jackpot room.

    The interior of the jackpot room and the machines also cannot be in the public's view.

    Q Who is allowed to play in these rooms?

    A Only members and their guests, both of whom have to be at least 18 years old, are allowed in the jackpot rooms. Each member is allowed to take along a maximum of two guests.

    Q Can food be served in jackpot rooms?

    A Yes, club operators can provide food and drinks to members, but they cannot advertise their operation of jackpot machines.

    Q How many jackpot rooms are there?

    A The police declined to reveal the number of private lottery permits they have issued to such societies. But media reports in the last few years have stated that there are over 90 such jackpot clubs in Singapore.

    Q How much can these clubhouses earn?

    A Checks by The Straits Times on the latest annual returns filed by clubs with the Registry of Societies show that gross incomes can vary widely - these can range from $36.8 million (Tiong Bahru Football Club) to $475,185 (Albirex Niigata Football Club).

    Q Are these takings taxed?

    A Yes, these societies have to pay a private lotteries duty to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

    This amount is 9.5 per cent of the "turnover", or the total amount wagered by players on jackpot machines.

These days, jackpot revenues cover around a third of an S-League club's operating costs. Sponsorships and subsidies from the FAS take care of the rest.

Balestier Khalsa chairman S. Thavaneson, whose club has eight machines, said: "Most S-League clubs started getting them from around 1998, but it was purely to cover operating costs. We are not in the business of running jackpot machines and building surpluses.

"The focus must be on football. Anyway, we don't have time to concentrate on jackpot operations. We already spend about 90 per cent of our time on football activities."

But S-League clubs are not the only football teams with jackpot rooms. Clubs that have not played in the S-League for years are still profiting from jackpot machines.

Tanjong Pagar United and Gombak United, for instance, still run jackpot operations, although they have not played in the S-League after the 2014 and 2012 seasons, respectively.

They reported gross incomes of $490,000 and $9.2 million for the year 2015, respectively.

Woodlands Wellington, which sat out from 2014, also run a clubhouse with an income of $11.3 million. The club, Hougang United and TBFC were raided by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) last week. The raids came after a police report was filed against TBFC over suspected misuse of funds and purported attempts by a TBFC official to obstruct ongoing audits by the FAS.

The chairman of Hougang and TBFC is Mr Bill Ng, who is leading the other team in the FAS election.

He is assisting the CAD with investigations, along with his wife Bonnie Wong, former FAS president Zainudin Nordin and FAS general secretary Winston Lee.

Responding to ST's queries, an FAS spokesman said the clubs sat out the S-League to "strengthen their financial position", but they are encouraged to offer football activities for the community at large.

"The sit-out clubs are required to submit monthly management accounts and annual audit reports."

Another club that also runs jackpot operations is Sinchi FC, which last played in the S-League in 2005.

Their clubhouse, which has six machines, is at Sultan Plaza. The FAS said Sinchi is not its affiliate.

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

Mr Woon, who is with Tanjong Pagar now, coaches several youth teams. The club also runs a women's football team and hopes to rejoin the S-League one day.

To that end, the FAS said: "They may apply to return to the S-League when they are financially stable. However, their application will be subject to meeting stringent criteria, and is at the discretion of the FAS and S-League."

It will be left to the new FAS council, after Saturday's election, to decide on whether the sit-out clubs can return.

• Additional reporting by Winnie Tan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Football's link to jackpot machines goes back to the 90s'. Print Edition | Subscribe