We had a debate in Parliament last week on our casinos. The Government is enacting laws to further regulate gaming activities, including introducing visit limits. Not unexpectedly, MPs from different parties took the opportunity to express their concerns about problem gambling and to question whether we did the right thing in allowing the casinos into our country.
But I could not help thinking if we were avoiding the real issue. Don't get me wrong - I am no fan of gambling. I think it is completely irrational and unproductive, and said so in Parliament. The mathematicians will tell you that the games are calibrated such that the casino always wins. The casinos make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits every year. Where do you think these come from? Yet a gambler's ego (or delusion) tells him that it is somehow different for him - that he can outsmart the casino or that he is luckier than others. In my work as a litigator, I have come across a few cases where people have stolen from their employers or others to fuel their habit or pay for losses. Despite losing huge amounts of money (in four cases, millions), these individuals continued to believe, even after their arrest, that their luck would turn and they would win everything back, and some. It is a delusion.
But why my reservations about the debate? Because gambling was already pervasive before the IRs, and will continue to flourish even without them. Three of the four cases I referred to above where millions were stolen, pre-dated the IRs. I once read a report that illegal gambling was a larger business than legal gambling. And now with the internet, on-line gambling is likely to grow exponentially. Restricting access to the IRs will not address problem gambling - not even close.
More importantly, as MP after MP got up to express their concerns, I realized that none of us have livelihoods which depend on the IRs. If we shut down the IRs, what do we tell the thousands of Singaporeans who depend, directly or indirectly, on them for their next pay check? Have we asked them whether they think it is a good idea to have IRs in Singapore? Their views count too. I also recall that the IRs were built at the time when the world looked headed for the next great depression, and many in the business community spoke of how the IRs would create jobs and help Singapore ride the storm. And there is no doubt that they did help. It is fine now to talk about how well Singapore has done and that there are more jobs than workers. But that was not the case a few years ago, and will not likely be in the future.
Some talk about how we should not be dependent on IRs and that we should develop our economy in other areas. Everyone agrees with this. We should not put all, or even most of, our eggs in one basket. But we are not doing that. Further, while it is simple to say that we should develop other areas, it is altogether more difficult to identify what those other areas are or predict if they will be successful. And it is telling that such speeches are usually bereft of details.
There is another larger point. Gambling can be addictive and has ruined many lives and families. But so has alcohol. In cases of drunk driving, it has taken lives. Why isn't there an equally loud call to ban its consumption? How does one explain heavy government regulation on gambling, but not alcohol? How about smoking, which causes disease and death, even to non- smokers? If the answer is that people should exercise personal responsibility over drinking and smoking, why can't they be expected to do the same for gambling? Indeed, a much stronger case can be made for banning smoking entirely. But very few are asking for that.
I am not championing gambling - far from it. As I say above, it is an irrational, unproductive activity. And it is particularly objectionable as it exploits human weakness to make money for its promoters. But I think that it is also important for Government to be consistent, and have a clear and rational position on all such activities. The question is what the role of the Government should be in regulating gambling and other vices? If you want a ban on gambling, you must also accept that the Government can and should ban smoking, alcohol, prostitution, and all other activities it considers harmful to society. But this is the “Nanny State” we do not want. In any event, you will find it difficult to get consensus on what is harmful and what is not.
The current framework we have appears to be a reasoned one: allow free market forces, but set rules and restrictions to protect, and provide assistance to, vulnerable groups, and calibrate such regulations as circumstances may warrant. That is the same approach we have for smoking and alcohol. Government can only do so much - the rest will depend on family and individual responsibility.