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Oct 23, 2010
10 more ways to protect local gamblers

Singapore has stringent laws to minimise the social impact of casino gambling. But given the recent news reports on mind-boggling losses and casino-related crime, people are asking if the social safeguards are insufficient. What else can be done?
Tessa Wong and Elgin Toh highlight 10 ideas.

IS SINGAPORE doing enough to protect its vulnerable citizens from problem gambling and related social ills?

This prickly question has resurfaced following a spate of news reports on local gamblers losing staggering amounts and the rising incidence of casino-related crime.

In June, it was reported that seafood tycoon Henry Quek lost $26 million at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS). Last week, there was another report on another Singaporean businessman who lost $100 million at both casinos.

Since RWS opened in February, and Marina Bay Sands (MBS) in April, more than 40 people have been convicted of casino-related crimes. Cases ranged from customers cheating the casinos and stealing chips, to evading levy payment.

All these incidents at the integrated resorts (IRs) have cast a spotlight on the delicate balancing act faced by Singapore.

On the one hand, the Government wants to maximise economic returns from the two mammoth projects to create more jobs and boost the economy.

On the other hand, it must counter any rise in problem gambling caused by the new casinos. It must protect citizens who are most at risk of getting addicted to gambling, especially the low-income and young people.

It is too early to establish any correlation between casino gambling and social ills here. But the evidence so far points to an increasing number of problem gamblers.

Although stringent measures to protect Singaporeans from problem gambling are in place, there is a question mark over whether they are sufficient.

The string of recent convictions means that problems are showing up. But they also mean that the safeguards are working. So what more can be done?

Insight culls 10 ideas from gaming experts, social counsellors, academics, and the legislation of other countries.

1 Reduce frequency of visits

Experts say that a frequency-based system modelled on Guangdong's may work in restricting Singaporeans' access to casinos.

Since 2007, Guangdong residents have faced progressively stricter restrictions on travel to Macau. Now they can visit Macau on individual visas only once every three months.

Such a curb would be easy to adopt here, says Dr Davis Fong, director of the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming in Macau.

For example, Singaporeans could be limited to a certain number of visits per week or month. After all, the technology to monitor visits is already in place as locals and permanent residents must scan their identity cards at machines placed at the casinos' entrances.

2 Make loss limits mandatory

Under a proposal being considered in Australia, gamblers will have to set their loss limits in casinos.

A loss limit is a ceiling for gambling losses. After a gambler has lost the set amount, he would be barred from playing further.

Advocates say it would help tackle gambling addiction. Macau-based gaming consultant David Green believes this is one way Singapore could strengthen its safeguards.

Gamblers would be tracked by their fingerprints, either by a biometric system or a USB card that contains their fingerprint. The system would work on slot machines and electronic table games.

Both casinos here allow players to set loss limits, but on a voluntary basis.

3 No credit for local players

Current laws allow the casinos to provide credit to either foreigners or premium players. Local mass players, however, do not get credit.

But experts are wondering whether this line should be cut off for all local players, including premium ones too.

They say that when a gambler becomes compulsive, credit will tend to fuel his misplaced belief in his ability to recoup his losses. That is why Quebec in Canada prohibits casinos from extending credit to any gambler.

In Singapore, Mr Quek's reported $26 million loss was said to be partly the result of RWS' credit extension.

Gaming consultant Michael Gore cites the example of American trucking tycoon Leonard Tose, who lost his entire family fortune in Atlantic City's casinos which kept giving him credit. 'Credit is what kills a player,' he warns.

4 Have short self-exclusion orders

Singapore allows people who have been barred from the casinos, either by their family or by themselves, to terminate their exclusion orders after a year.

But experts say that more options should be offered to casual gamblers - for instance, exclusion orders which automatically expire after one or three months.

Dr Derek da Cunha, author of Singapore Places Its Bets, argues that many gamblers either do not know that they can terminate the exclusion order after a year, or feel that being barred for at least a year may be too long.

In Australia, some states allow temporary self-exclusion orders in which applicants can dictate the length of exclusion. Some states recommend a minimum of three to six months.

Implementing more options would be easy, he notes, as they would be an extension of current measures.

5 Place ATMs further away

ATMs are not allowed to be placed within the casinos here. But cash machines can still be found just a stone's throw away.

At MBS, three cash machines are situated next to a casino entrance.

One suggestion is to stop the IRs from placing the ATMs within a 100m radius of the casinos' entrances. This would give gamblers a chance to 'cool off'.

'The longer walk gives gamblers more time to think, a short timeout before you can go and get more money out. When you're in the heat of chasing your losses, playing continuously, at least it gives you some time to think about what you're doing,' says Professor Munidasa Winslow, executive director of addiction and mental health consultancy, Promises.

It is also suggested that ATM machines should dispense less cash.

The Singapore Turf Club has no ATMs on its premises. Punters must walk out to Kranji MRT station for the nearest cash machines.

6 More help from within casinos

In February, RWS started an on-site counselling service for gamblers who need help. Both casinos have literature for problem gamblers on their premises.

But experts suggest making it even easier for gamblers to get help while inside the casino: Let counsellors or National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) representatives patrol the gaming floor to identify problem gamblers, or set up a booth on site where gamblers can get more information.

'We're talking crisis management here. People who can go in and intervene, and provide a timeout space, have coffee in a comfortable room, talk to the gambler about whether he's going overboard,' says Prof Winslow.

In Quebec, casinos are compelled to install machines at which gamblers can take a simple test to determine if they are problem gamblers.

Mr Gore proposes that local gamblers sign a disclaimer when they enter a casino. It should include a warning about the dangers of gambling and the telephone numbers of organisations that help problem gamblers.

7 Tax less to attract foreigners

Another idea is to provide more incentives for the IRs to target the foreign market.

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan had said that the Government wanted to 'reinforce the point that (IRs) are not supposed to go after the low-hanging fruit which the local market represents, but instead to focus their efforts on bringing additional tourists from abroad'.

But with no incentives, says Mr Gore, IRs cannot be expected to do so on their own.

'The local players are easy to get. They don't have to pay air fare, they just come and you make money. So for your marketing team it's very easy to do,' he says.

He suggests giving the IRs tax deduction on every tourist that they bring to Singapore on packages. Air tickets are easy to prove, he notes, so this is a workable way of encouraging IRs to devote more energy to overseas marketing.

8 Restrict electronic gaming

These days, gamblers can use electronic machines to play not just slots, but also games that have traditionally been played at a table, such as baccarat.

In June and July, MBS introduced electronic roulette, baccarat, and the dice game Sic Bo.

Dr Fong points out that such machines are increasingly favoured by players as they can play faster than at tables manned by croupiers. But this means they can lose themselves in the game more easily.

Several countries have begun imposing restrictions on gaming machines because of their particularly addictive nature.

In New Zealand, gaming machines must have features that interrupt play, such as a pop-up sign that asks players whether they want to continue playing.

In 2000, Victoria state in Australia froze the number of gaming machines allowed in the state.

The following year, it legislated that clocks must be installed on gaming machines and venues with such machines must have natural light. These are designed to prevent players from losing track of time.

9 Eject problem gamblers

Casinos in some countries have set up a system to identify problem gamblers. In Switzerland, for instance, casino employees are trained to pick up signs.

If a gambler shows one or more of three critical signs, he is immediately reported. First, any talk of 'suicide'; second, tantrums like yelling, cursing or throwing objects; and finally, any 'failure' to use the toilet even when it is obviously necessary.

Alberta, in Canada, requires all casino staff to attend a training session in which they learn to recognise problem gambling and deal with problem gamblers appropriately.

But governments have rarely taken the step of making it mandatory for the casino to eject anyone. If Singapore wants to take the lead, it could make it a legal obligation for casinos to identify and expel compulsive gamblers.

10 Raise the levy

In 2005, the daily casino levy for Singaporeans and permanent residents was set at $100 as the amount was deemed more than the cost of travelling to Batam or Genting - the two nearest casino destinations.

But some believe that the figure should be raised higher. An online petition circulating last month argued that more low- and middle-income patrons would be deterred if the daily levy was raised to an 'obscene amount' such as $500 to $1,000.

Dr da Cunha estimates that if the levy had been set at $300 from the start, the current numbers of walk-in local customers and habitual local customers could have been cut by 90 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.

However, he cautions that raising the levy now may give the impression that the original quantum was poorly thought out. By changing the rules mid-stream, it would also send a wrong signal to the international business community.

I would like to propose another way to deter gambling

Allow employers to check the number of times their employees visit the casino

This allows employers to manage the risk of money being stolen by problem gamblers among their staff. This will also protect shareholders like all of us forummers here.

Employees will think twice about visiting the casinos if they know the frequent trips will negatively impact their career.

Since the IDs are scanned upon entry, the information will be captured in a database. It will not be difficult to extract this information for the employers if the issue of privacy can be settled.
I'm not sure that employers will bother to keep tabs on their employees' activities outside of work. It's not always that a problem gambler ends up stealing money from his workplace, though there have been several such cases. He can approach his family/friends for money or at most borrow from legal loan sharks or illegal ones.....

Even if employers could track how often their employees visit the casino, how will they use the information? Send the employee for counselling? Smile
Quote:I'm not sure that employers will bother to keep tabs on their employees' activities outside of work.

Employers can simply don't bother but still reap the benefit. The mere knowledge that their bosses are able to track their gambling activities will deter employees from visiting the casinos frequently.

It is like placing a phony security camera in the lift. When people see a security camera, they will stop doing obscene things like urinating inside the lift. Such cases will most likely drop whether or not there is somebody behind the camera doing the monitoring.

I think no need to go to all the trouble.

Just extend and raise the levy to resident workers rather than citizens. The fact that the levy is only 100SGD, which is about just as expensive and less troublesome that going to Genting or a cruise ship, already says a lot about whether the casinos are catered for locals and working residents or tourists.

That way the cost of enforcement also remains with the authorities and the casinos and not to anyone else.