Mr Speaker Sir, I thank Members for their support of the social safeguards in the Bill. I also appreciate Members’ views and suggestions to strengthen the management of the harm of problem gambling. I share the concerns and I can also attest to the harm that problem gambling brings to the individual, family, community and society.
I saw for myself since I was young the harm that gambling brought to close relatives - whose life direction and work ethics turned negative once addicted; whose character changed and turned into habitual liars; whose families broke up once the addiction took its toll; where innocent children had to endure the hardships of growing up in a broken family; where husband and wife turned against each other; where fathers and sons fought each other over their gambling addiction and many more such sad recollections.
Problem gambling can stem from participation in any or multiple forms of gambling activity, and not just casino gambling. Before I respond to Members’ specific queries and suggestions, I shall first explain the four main considerations that the Ministry of Social and Family Development always bears in mind in the design of our social safeguards.
First, this complex issue of problem gambling requires and can only be managed through the combined efforts of personal responsibility, family support, community involvement and that includes the responsible gambling efforts on the part of the operators and our social safeguards. On its own, each effort will be limited in its impact and efficacy. On its own, each will be unable to holistically manage the complex issue of problem gambling. In the design of any social safeguards, we must not inadvertently erode the role of personal responsibility, family support or community involvement. Instead we must make sure that all four pieces come together and work in concert. This is something that Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Ms Low Yen Ling had also expressed earlier.
Second, our measures must be calibrated and targeted. Too broad or too blunt a measure will be ineffective in providing preventive assistance to the areas of greatest concern. Too fine or too narrow a measure may be resource intensive in application, yet may not achieve results that commensurate with the efforts and resources expended. Broad-based measures help us reach a wider audience. These include public education initiatives to raise awareness of problem gambling and help services available; and entry levies to deter casual and impulse gambling. On the other hand, targeted measures like exclusion orders and the proposed visit limits help us to manage problem gamblers, those in financial distress, and the financially vulnerable frequent casino patrons.
Third, our policies must be able to be implemented effectively to achieve our desired goals, while avoiding unintended consequences as far as possible. For example, the Casino Regulatory Authority or CRA and the National Council on Problem Gambling or NCPG should not find it too onerous or complicated to implement any proposed measures. Neither should we have measures that are easily circumvented.
Finally, we must continually monitor the gambling landscape to ensure that our measures remain relevant, as suggested by Mr Seah Kian Peng, Associate Professor Eugene Tan and Ms Jessica Tan. We should not be complacent just because our probable pathological and probable problem gambling rates today remain stable at 1.4% and 1.2% respectively. As Ms Jessica Tan said, there can never be enough safeguards against the harm of gambling and we need to stay vigilant even as we strengthen our social safeguards. We must stay alert to the evolving trends and be prepared to make the necessary changes in anticipation of new and emerging challenges. For example, Ms Denise Phua and Dr Lam Pin Min raised valid concerns on online gambling, which many jurisdictions are still learning to come to terms with. We too must study the issues and countermeasures carefully and stay ahead of the curve to safeguard our society.
The proposed social safeguards amendments before us are a reflection of the four considerations that I have stated. I will now proceed to address the queries and issues raised by Members in detail.
First, I am heartened to note the general support for the proposed Casino Visit Limit. This will be an extension of the existing Casino Exclusion system under NCPG. Under the proposed amendments, NCPG will be empowered to constitute a Committee of Assessors to consider issuing Third-Party Visit Limit or Casino Exclusion for those identified as financially vulnerable or at-risk, depending on individual circumstances. I would like to assure Mr Dhinakaran and Dr Intan that a due process will be put in place to assess an individual’s financial vulnerability. The NCPG will consider a risk-based approach based on various risk factors such as the frequency of casino visits, credit history and financial situation. It will also take into account information provided by family members during the process. As suggested by Mr Gan Thiam Poh, the NCPG will consider consulting the credit bureaus on developing the assessment for financial vulnerability.
Ms Mary Liew asked about the rationale for introducing Third-Party Visit Limit for persons found to be financially vulnerable and whether an automatic exclusion could be imposed on them instead. Mr Zainal Sapari also sought clarification on the definition of “financial vulnerability”. First, I would like to reiterate that this group of financially vulnerable persons differs from the groups that have been automatically excluded from the casinos such as the undischarged bankrupts or those who are dependent on government social assistance. Unlike them, these gamblers may not necessarily be financially distressed to be excluded totally from the casinos now. That said, I would like to reassure Ms Mary Liew that NCPG’s Committee of Assessors can issue a Casino Exclusion Order, instead of a Visit Limit, if the situation warrants it.
The financially distressed are already excluded under Third-Party Casino Exclusion. In July and August this year, we extended Third-Party Casino Exclusion to include an additional 15,000 persons, such as recipients of ComCare short- and medium-term assistance and those paying subsidised HDB rental but with arrears of six months or more. I agree with Ms Denise Phua that we should identify those at-risk early so as to proactively consider protective measures for these groups.
Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Intan asked whether we could consider allowing anonymous or third-party applications on behalf of individuals and families for Casino Exclusion Orders or Visit Limits. More pertinent than excluding a person from the casino or imposing a Visit Limit is to get him or her to seek help to curb his or her gambling habit. Research shows that it is most beneficial for the rehabilitation of problem gamblers if their families also support and attend therapy together with them. Thus, it is more beneficial if families are involved directly, rather than as an anonymous or third-party applicant for the Exclusion Order or Visit Limit. Stopping entry to the casinos may be necessary but insufficient to complete the rehabilitation process for the problem gambler. The families need to walk the journey together to heal and to recover.
Mr Hri Kumar also expressed concern that confidential credit records may be used to determine Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit. I would like to assure him that the confidentiality of financial information or credit records will be maintained. NCPG will only approach, for example, credit bureaus with the consent of individuals. However, in cases where financially vulnerable gamblers or persons with poor credit record are brought to the attention of the Council for the purpose of an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit, the individual will be given an opportunity to provide evidence to the contrary.
Mr Desmond Lee suggested imposing a Visit Limit, if necessary, as a condition for those who wish to revoke their Self-Exclusion. With the proposed amendments, the NCPG may require those who wish to revoke their Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit to undergo a harm assessment conducted by an NCPG-appointed professional. The NCPG’s Committee of Assessors can continue to impose a Third-Party Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit, if the person is found to be financially distressed or vulnerable. Also, as suggested by Mr Hri Kumar, the Committee of Assessors will be empowered to refer respondents of Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit, or those who wish to revoke their Casino Exclusion or Visit Limit to participate in a programme of counselling, rehabilitation or special education. In fact, a person subject to a Family Exclusion Order can be referred for counselling under the current Act.
Mr Desmond Lee commented that sufficient flexibility should be given to the NCPG’s Committee of Assessors to impose either a Casino Exclusion Order or Visit Limit for applications by family members, and that the Exclusion Order or Visit Limit should take effect immediately even if the order is not served on respondents. The proposed amendments will allow the Committee of Assessors to issue an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit in the absence of the respondents if they fail to respond to a notice served on them, have indicated that they do not wish to attend the hearing, or cannot be located. Mr Gerald Giam also expressed concern that families may opt for a Visit Limit as an alternative to an Exclusion Order. Indeed the NCPG will work with family members during the application process to help them determine if an Exclusion Order or Visit Limit will be more appropriate, based on the unique circumstances of each case.
Dr Intan asked how the Visit Limit imposed by the Committee of Assessors would be checked or documented, and whether it would apply to overseas casinos or cruise ships. NCPG will work with the CRA and casino operators to monitor the visits made by those subject to the Visit Limit. Once the individual reaches his maximum number of visits per month specified in the Visit Limit, he will be excluded from the casinos for the rest of the month. The Visit Limit will only apply to the local Integrated Resorts casinos as our legislation does not extend to overseas jurisdictions.
Mr Gerald Giam asked if there are entry barriers for family members to apply for a Family Exclusion Order against their loved ones. The time taken from the point of application to hearing by the Committee of Assessors to determine a Family Exclusion Order application is less than two weeks. The Committee sits about twice a week to hear the applications, not once a month as Mr Gerald Giam mentioned. Applications are based at Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre so that counselling services can commence at the onset of the process. With the proposed amendments, a provisional Family Exclusion Order can be issued much earlier where necessary. I believe Mr Ang Wei Neng will be assured that, going forward, the Committee of Assessors can protect the family from further harm if there was an urgent need to issue such a provisional order.
While we aim to speed up the processing time for the Family Exclusion Orders, it is important that the process remains robust and reliable. The Committee will take into account all relevant information before the Committee, including information from family members, before deciding to impose a Family Exclusion Order or Family Visit Limit. Under Section 163A, the Committee will consider if the individual has engaged, or is likely to engage, in gambling activities in disregard of the needs and welfare of his or her family members for the purpose of a Family Visit Limit, for example whether the individual provides for the family financially, whether there are signs of trouble such as absenteeism from work, whether he engages in criminal activities, and whether there are demand letters from creditors. As each individual’s circumstances will be unique, the decision to impose a Family Visit Limit is vested in the Committee of Assessors.
I would also like to assure Mr Gerald Giam that the Government is committed to resource NCPG and help services to address problem gambling. While the NCPG Council may comprise only 13 members, it has expertise in pertinent gambling-related areas such psychiatry, psychology, social services, counseling, legal, rehabilitative and religious services. It is supported by a full-time secretariat. NCPG’s approach is consistent with our overall approach that includes community involvement. Instead of being a self-contained centre, NCPG works in partnership with community organisations such as family service centres, the National Addictions Management Service or NAMS, educational institutions and voluntary organisations such as the community services and Yah! College.
Dr Lam Pin Min, Ms Mary Liew, Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Hri Kumar, Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Gerald Giam are concerned that a Visit Limit could lead to an increase in gambling intensity. This is a valid concern. When it comes to gambling or problem gambling, frequency and intensity tend to go hand in hand. We will monitor the situation closely. We also urge families and friends of gamblers as well as casino operators, who have a business interest in doing so, to alert NCPG when they encounter individuals who intensify their gambling after a Visit Limit is imposed. The Committee of Assessors can then review the case and impose Third-Party Casino Exclusion, if necessary.
Mr Dhinakaran, Dr Lam Pin Min, Mr Desmond Lee, Mr Zainal Sapari, Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Gan Thiam Poh suggested that a limit on gambling expenditure could be set, including one that is mandatory for either financially vulnerable locals or all casino gamblers. While we put in place rules to safeguard our people, we do not want to end up in a situation where people psychologically pass their personal responsibility to the State. That is if the State limits my gambling to N visits or X amount, then I am safe to gamble within that limit without due consideration of my own personal circumstances, or to control my gambling behaviour, or to monitor the consequences upon myself and my family. This is not the way to interpret our social safeguards.
Both casino operators currently offer a pre-commitment system where patrons can voluntarily set loss limits to pre-determine their expenditure limit at each visit. At this juncture, we will work with the casino operators to enhance the publicity and use of the pre-commitment system as part of their responsible gambling initiatives.
Dr Lee Bee Wah, Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Intan suggested that high-risk individuals, for example, those who borrow money from credit institutions or loan sharks, or those who are indebted to a certain extent, should be excluded from the casinos. Mr Seah Kian Peng also suggested that low-income earners be excluded from the casinos entirely.
I agree that we should take a proactive and preventive approach to protect the vulnerable groups before they get into trouble. Regardless of whom the individuals borrow from, we should be concerned if they start borrowing money to feed their gambling. Currently, persons with poor credit record can already be subjected to Third-Party Exclusion from the casinos. However, financial vulnerability transcends income level. Regardless of income, if you do not spend within your means, there is always a risk. We want to look at financial vulnerability in relation to frequent gambling and help those who need help, regardless of their income. We will continue to monitor the situation and work with relevant agencies such as MinLaw, as suggested by Ms Low Yen Ling, to identify and consider extending third-party exclusion to more high-risk individuals.
Ms Denise Phua and Mr Gerald Giam were also concerned about Work Permit Holders visiting the casinos. Self-exclusion has been gaining impetus among the Work Permit Holders. This is encouraging and shows that foreigners in Singapore are taking active steps to protect themselves against the negative effects of casino gambling. While we have not implemented additional measures on this front at this juncture, I urge employers to continue to encourage their foreign workers to self exclude voluntarily. Keppel Housing Pte Ltd and Tiong Seng Contractors Pte Ltd are two examples of companies who have done so.
Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Desmond Lee also suggested that it would be beneficial for some of the social safeguards measures to be extended to family members of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents who may not be Singaporeans or PRs, such as those holding Long Term Visit Passes or LTVP. There are already such provisions today. These non-Singaporean or non-PR family members can apply for self-exclusions or Family Exclusion Orders, and may also be the subject of Family Exclusion Orders.
Mr Desmond Lee asked about the number of persons excluded under the NCPG Casino Exclusion measures, and whether the National Addictions Management Service has seen a noticeable rise in the number of people seeking help for gambling addiction. As at end October this year, about 130,000 persons are excluded under the NCPG Casino Exclusion Measures. This includes 85,000 people on Self-Exclusion, 43,000 on Third-Party Casino Exclusion, and about 1,200 on Family Exclusion Orders.
NAMS and the Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre are the two key Government-funded service points for services related to gambling addiction. The number of persons seen at these two centres has increased from around 300 in 2008 to close to 770 between January and October 2012. The upward trend is likely to be a result of efforts by NCPG and NAMS to raise awareness of problem gambling. The figures are encouraging as one of the biggest challenges in treating addiction is to get affected parties to come forward and seek help. I assure Ms Mary Liew that we will continue to provide the necessary assistance to problem gamblers as well as their families as suggested by Dr Intan. I believe Ms Low Yen Ling will be glad to note that NCPG will continue to work with relevant agencies to strengthen its public education efforts to increase awareness of problem gambling, the problem gambling helpline and other help services available, especially at places where gamblers congregate, for example at gambling venues.
Next, I will elaborate more on the proposed amendments related to Responsible Gambling, as requested by Associate Professor Eugene Tan.
I agree with Mr Dhinakaran and Ms Mary Liew that the casino operators should be responsible stakeholders of society and demonstrate active participation and contribution towards corporate social responsibility. I hope that the IR operators hear the sentiments clearly expressed by Members of this House and appreciate the social context that they are operating in.
I can understand Mr Gerald Giam’s and Dr Lam Pin Min’s concerns on whether the casinos would be able to implement the responsible gambling measures as well. As pointed out by Mr Gan Thiam Poh, it is in the interest of the operators to do so if they want to sustain a viable business here in the long run. The IR operators should understand that they will not achieve what they aspire to do if they do not have the support of our public.
Today, the casino operators have in place Responsible Gambling practices that meet the minimum requirements under the Law. These include a pre-commitment system, employee training, and patron education, as Ms Low Yen Ling raised, that includes the prominent display of information on problem gambling and help services available. However, there is scope for improvement. More can be done to improve the visibility and efficacy of responsible gambling practices at the casinos.
The Amendment Bill requires the casino operators to propose a responsible gambling programme for the CRA‘s endorsement. This programme should be comparable to other jurisdictions or casinos with good responsible gambling practices, as suggested by Mr Chen Show Mao, and should include good practices such as casino-initiated intervention for problem gamblers. Audits will be conducted to ensure that the operators comply with the endorsed responsible gambling requirements as mentioned by Dr Lam Pin Min and Associate Professor Eugene Tan. Disciplinary action will be taken against the operators should they breach the requirements.
In terms of monitoring the efficacy of responsible gambling measures, as raised by Associate Professor Eugene Tan and Dr Lam Pin Min, I would like to highlight that an inter-agency approach is taken to evaluate the overall impact of the IR casinos. CRA will consider the operators’ level of compliance with our regulatory requirements, including for responsible gambling, when CRA grants or renews the casino licences. Economic reasons will not be the only considerations in our management of the casinos.
With the amendments, we expect the casino operators to have in place enhanced responsible gambling measures and work with the Government to manage the negative social externalities of casino gambling, as suggested by Mr Chen Show Mao. We will also ask the casino operators to consider ideas proposed by Members, including those from Dr Lam Pin Min, as part of their repertoire of responsible gambling practices.
My Ministry will work with NCPG to enhance responsible gambling practices across all forms of gambling in Singapore through the formation of a Responsible Gambling Forum. The aim of this Forum is to facilitate the exchange of views and information on responsible gambling practices and to foster mutual understanding on responsible gambling issues between the community and the gaming industry.
I am glad to note that both community stakeholders and major gambling operators have shown strong support for this idea and have agreed to be part of this Forum. More details on this Forum will be made available early next year.
Mr Png Eng Huat expressed concern over soft advertising by the casino operators. There is a set of existing regulations - the Casino Control (Advertising) Regulations – that requires the casino operators to seek the Authority’s approval for all casino promotions and advertising, including sponsorships. The proposed amendments will further empower the Authority to audit the casino operators’ advertising and promotional activities. Any breach will be subject to disciplinary action.
I recognise that there will always be different pockets of people who are more susceptible to the dangers of problem gambling. Mr Zainal Sapari asked how our young can be protected from online gambling, and Ms Low Yen Ling requested that we extend public education to youth and children. Our youth is a potential at-risk group, especially due to the desensitization of various online casino-type games through social gaming. Mr Zainal Sapari and Ms Low Yen Ling may be pleased to know that NCPG has begun to reach out to youth through collaborative efforts with organisations such as MCYC Community Services and Republic Polytechnic, to develop and roll out youth gambling awareness and prevention programmes. NCPG will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes and determine what more needs to be done in this area.
The National Addictions Management Service also has an adolescent programme – ReLive! Back on Track – which caters to at-risk youth, their families and friends. ReLive! holds regular talks in schools, and bi-annual open house events targeted at caregivers, social workers and school counsellors to raise awareness of addictions in youth.
Mr Speaker Sir, in conclusion, this set of amendments before the House is part of our on-going work to address problem gambling, focus on vulnerable groups and improve safeguards for society at large. I would like to reiterate that financial vulnerability does not necessarily equate to low income, as even high income earners can become financially vulnerable if they do not manage their finances well.
I believe that the proposed set of amendments will go some way in addressing some of the gaps in responsible gambling and problem gambling concerns. We will continue to monitor and strengthen the safeguards as necessary. We are also committed to raising public awareness on the harm of problem gambling, and enhance our counselling and help services to problem gamblers and their families.
I urge Members to support the amendments. I also urge Members to encourage our residents and constituents to support our work to contain and minimise the potential harm of casino gambling.
Mr Speaker Sir, I will be prepared to take clarifications after Mr Iswaran rounds up the debate.