Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Speech on Singapore Totalisator Board (Amendment) Bill: 21 July 2008

I know this is a fairly technical and arcane bill to speak on, since it was really a bill to streamline the regulatory regime over Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club. The primary reason why I was interested in speaking was because when I was in private practice (a lifetime and a half ago), I did quite a lot of gaming-related work, so I had some familiarity with and professional interest in this area.

On the whole, the changes implemented were quite positive. The law in this area had been riddled with gaps, loopholes and uncertainties, and this bill basically sought to regularise everything, which is good.

The only comment I have on the Senior Minister of State's reply is that she got the law wrong, in relation to the existing minimum legal age for betting. That was one of the loopholes that needed plugging, because the Act pre-amendment only prescribes the minimum age of 18 for participating in approved totalisator schemes, which has a very technical meaning and does not include the usual betting or lottery activities such as sports betting, 4D or Toto (see Section 15 of the Act). This is why the Act post-amendment specifically mentions "lottery, betting or game activity", in addition to totalisators.

Like I said, this is a fairly technical and arcane area.

Speech on Singapore Totalisator Board (Amendment) Bill

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Mr Speaker, Sir, thank you for allowing me to participate in this debate. I rise in support of the Bill.

Sir, this Bill is intended to rationalise the workings of the Tote Board, which is now responsible for regulating gaming and betting in Singapore and to address certain gaps in the law that currently exist. As such, I only have two points to make.

Firstly, clause 10 of the Bill repeals the existing section 15 of the Act and introduces a new section 15, which essentially provides that it is lawful for any person of or above the age of 18 years to participate in licensed gaming or betting. This is a relatively lower age and is of some concern, given the trend of Singaporeans starting to gamble at a young age. A survey released by the Government in May this year found that a quarter of respondents started gambling when they were less than 18 years old, up 10% from 2005. Setting the legal age for gambling at 18 years risks exacerbating this problem. I would therefore like to ask the Minister to clarify and explain why and how this age of 18 years old was decided upon, especially when this is lower than the age of 21 years which is required for entry into the upcoming casinos under the Casino Control Act.

On a related note, this new section 15 now makes it explicitly clear that those who are 18 years and above may lawfully gamble with licensed operators, which is something that was previously not so clear. So, this is positive. This also means that, by implication, those who are below 18, who somehow manage to gamble with licensed operators are committing an offence under the Betting Act or the Common Gaming Houses Act. But neither of this Act nor the Betting Act, nor the Gaming Houses Act, imposes any liability on licensed operators if they allow those who are below 18 to gamble. That seems to be a lacuna in the law which should be plugged, so as to drive home to licensed operators the seriousness of their responsibility not to allow young persons under the age of 18 to gamble.

Secondly, Sir, clause 14 of the Bill introduces a new section 20B that empowers the Minister to exempt any person or class of persons from any or all provisions of the Act through Gazette notifications. There is no statement as to the purposes for which such exemptions may be granted. Sir, the debate on casinos shows that gambling remains a sensitive issue in Singapore, which many Singaporeans are greatly concerned about. This broad power to the Minister to grant exemptions is worrying because it potentially deprives Parliament of the opportunity to review and debate proposed exemptions. If the Minister is of the view that this power to grant exemptions is administratively and operationally desirable and necessary, then I would suggest that, at the minimum, the new section 20B should be amended to explicitly state the purposes for which exemptions may be granted.

Sir, with that, I support the Bill.

Mrs Lim Hwee Hua: [...] As for Mr Siew Kum Hong's point about the age limit, let me just clarify that the current Tote Board Act actually already stipulates the age limit for gambling as 18 years. The objective of clause 10 is really not to set the age limit but to make a consequential amendment because of the removal of the Scheme from the subsidiary legislation. And as he has noted, the age limit applies to all gambling activities, except casinos which have a higher limit of 21 years. Eighteen years, if I may add, has been adopted as the age limit for gambling in many other jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. It is also incidentally the same age limit set for the consumption of alcohol and tobacco in Singapore.

As regards the operators' responsibility towards the age limit, Singapore Pools and Turf Club have actually taken very concrete steps to ensure that the products are not offered to the underage. This is part of the commitment towards responsible gambling. In fact, all the frontline staff and employees are required to undergo training in terms of executing these gambling measures. So, they will do physical control checks and checks of IDs as well. But I take his point that while this has worked thus far, there may be a case to consider making these responsibilities explicit in the legislation. So, we will study this further.

As for his point about clause 14 on giving the Minister the power to exempt any person or class of persons from all the provisions, let me assure the House that the Ministry does not intend to abuse the authority provided for by this new section. As I have commented earlier on, any decision taken is really a balance of all the different points. We should note that the gambling industry is a fast-changing one. The illegal gambling operators continue to pose a major challenge today and, therefore, this new provision will enable the Turf Club to be able to respond quickly with once-off exceptional exemptions to be made by the Minister in a timely manner.

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