Sunday, 23 July 2017

Stricter rules for jackpot machines in clubs to guard against problem gambling

Tougher rules soon to curb jackpot machines in clubs
Measures to protect vulnerable from ills of gambling will be rolled out over next 2 years
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2017

The number of jackpot machines in Singapore could go down sharply as the football and social clubs operating them will soon have tougher rules to contend with.

The new regime, to be rolled out over the next two years, will raise the bar for securing jackpot machine permits, and there will be tighter quotas for the number of machines a club can operate.

The minimum age for entering jackpot rooms will be raised from 18 to 21, and their operating hours will be restricted as the measures aim to protect the vulnerable from the ills of gambling.

The new rules were announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) yesterday and target machines outside the two casinos.

They could have a major impact on the fortunes of some of the clubs running jackpot machines - including football clubs that have earned millions from this while not even fielding professional teams.

The aim is to ensure that jackpot rooms provide no more than an ancillary part of wider activities at clubs with a real social purpose and genuine membership, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said at a briefing yesterday.

"Our sense is that some (operators) sort of pay lip service to the need to provide other services and focus on the jackpot machines as their primary objective. That, we cannot allow," he added.

Mr Shanmugam also said that the quota for jackpot machines will also be cut over the next two years, without giving details of the reduction.

There are now about 82 jackpot venues and almost 1,900 jackpot machines. The number of machines could drop by around a third with the new rules, said MHA.

Currently, a club may operate jackpot machines if it has at least two other recreational facilities, among other factors.

In future, to renew such permits or apply for fresh ones, a club will have to show that it provides a "suitably wide range" of social and recreational services to members. The amount of income that a club derives from jackpot machines, compared to its total income, will also be examined. Those that do not meet the tighter criteria will have to stop operating such machines by April 30 next year.

All private clubs with such machines will also need to adopt a self-exclusion scheme from next May that allows individuals with a serious gambling habit to bar themselves from entering jackpot rooms.

Those who flout criteria may be penalised under the Private Lotteries Act and face fines of up to $20,000 and jail of up to a year.

The issue of whether rules for jackpot venues should be tightened came under the spotlight in April, after reports of Tiong Bahru Football Club's $36.8 million annual takings last year from its 29 jackpot machines. This was more than the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) budget in the same period.

Reports also revealed that several football clubs which have not played in the S-League for some years continued running jackpot rooms with gross incomes ranging from $165,000 to $11.3 million.

Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the review that led to the new measures was announced on April 6 last year - well before the S-League saga erupted.

FAS said yesterday it would have to "review the measures in greater detail", while HomeTeamNS, which has five clubhouses and 120 fruit machines, said it would "endeavour" to meet the new requirements. Others such as NTUC Club said they would support, or have in place, measures that promote responsible gaming.

Additional reporting by Wang Meng Meng

Stricter rules for jackpot machines: Football clubs worry as jackpot revenue looks set to shrink
One club that left S-League over debts says it may be harder to run a professional team
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2017

Ever since Gombak United pulled out of the S-League in 2013 on account of financial difficulties, its chairman John Yap has wanted to get the club back into professional football.

Having cleared most of its debts by now, Mr Yap had been feeling positive that 2018 could be the year Gombak returned to the fold.

But the tougher rules on operating jackpot rooms at clubhouses announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs yesterday have put a question mark over the return.

Mr Yap, whose club operates a jackpot room in Kitchener Road, feels that the changes will curb social ills, but they could also hit Gombak's main income stream hard.

He said: "The shorter operating hours and the reduction in the number of machines will lower revenue. It will be a harder job to marry running a professional team and operating a jackpot room in the future."

Things could get even harder - he calls it a double whammy - if there is any cut in subsidies from national sports agency SportSG, Mr Yap said.

But Mr Yap still dreams of propelling Gombak back into the S-League.

"It is a big challenge but not impossible," he said. "The changes will make the clubs even more conscious of how much they spend.

"It will be up to the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) and the clubs to make the S-League even more attractive and competitive."

Sinchi FC, a team made up of Chinese nationals, played in the S-League from 2003 to 2005. It has attracted flak for continuing to operate a jackpot room with six machines at Sultan Plaza, despite not fielding a team for more than a decade.

Its vice-chairman Wang Jinhui said he welcomes the regulation changes and will strive to offer sporting activities. And although Sinchi is unable to afford a professional team, which typically costs about $1.2 million a year, the 56-year-old official believes he can retain the jackpot permit through sports and recreational activities.

He said: "Sinchi actually has organised football activities, even though we have been inactive in the S-League since 2005. For example, we organised an outreach programme for children in 2007, where the kids were trained by Singapore's former national coach Jan Poulsen."

The issue of jackpot rooms was highlighted in the build-up to the FAS' inaugural council election on April 29. Then, it was revealed that Tiong Bahru FC, an amateur National Football League club whose chairman was election presidential candidate Bill Ng, raked in $36.8 million from its jackpot room operations for the 2015/2016 financial year.

The amount eclipsed FAS' annual budget of $35.8 million from the same period.

The police also raided the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru, S-League sit-out club Woodlands Wellington and S-League side Hougang United, removing boxes of documents and computers on April 20. This came after SportSG filed a police report alleging the misuse of funds at Tiong Bahru and a club official attempted to obstruct an FAS audit. The FAS office at Jalan Besar Stadium was also raided.

But both Mr Yap and Mr Wang explained that the clubs sitting out the S-League needed the jackpot income to clear debts incurred from their days of playing professional football.

Since pulling out in 2013, Mr Yap revealed that Gombak has repaid about $2 million and is now "in a healthy financial situation".

Similarly, Mr Wang said: "We still owe creditors $170,000. But the integrated resorts (Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa) have affected our takings. Our annual profit is only about $10,000.

"But we support the Government's policies and we will try our best to come up with sports and recreation activities to keep our jackpot permit."

A spokesman for FAS said: "The FAS would need to review the measures in greater detail before responding to queries on them."

FAS officials will also meet their SportSG counterparts next month to find out the quantum of subsidies they will receive from the Tote Board for the next financial year.

Clubs to take steps to meet stricter rules
By Seow Bei Yi and Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2017

Several social clubs operating jackpot machines say they are already complying with certain new measures for jackpot rooms, while others say they will take steps to meet the tighter rules.

The changes, announced yesterday by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and set to take effect over the next two years, include more stringent criteria in the renewal and application of jackpot permits.

Also, those with casino exclusions due to financial situations or family objections will be excluded from the jackpot machine rooms starting in May next year.

In response to media queries, NTUC Club, which has jackpot rooms in four of its clubhouses and a facility in Downtown East, said it has already adopted the voluntary Centralised Self-Exclusion Scheme, facilitated by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), since May 2014.

Currently, a total of 25 private clubs have done so but from May next year, all such clubs operating jackpot rooms will be required to take on the scheme and offer self-exclusion, said the NCPG.

An NTUC Club spokesman added that it is also a member of the Responsible Gambling Forum, supporting responsible gaming initiatives. It will work with the authorities to implement the new measures in the next months, he said.

Despite the potential impact on its operations, a HomeTeamNS spokesman said it understands the need for more stringent criteria and tighter operating conditions.

"Notwithstanding the potential impact on our operations, we will endeavour to meet the new regulatory requirements in the next few months," he added.

It has 120 fruit machines in four of its clubhouses, said the spokesman. Jackpot machine takings accounted for 38.5 per cent of its total revenue in its last financial year.

Meanwhile, Safra, which has six clubhouses in areas such as Yishun and Toa Payoh, said it would study the potential impact of regulations on its operations, and how to fulfil the regulatory requirements. Its spokesman said it has an average of 20 jackpot machines per club.

There are currently about 82 jackpot venues, operating nearly 1,900 jackpot machines, a spike from 1,600 in 1996.

In recent years, private lotteries duties from jackpot machine operations have amounted to about $210 million annually, said MHA.

But "over time, a number of clubs have relied on fruit machines as a major activity", it added.

Some clubs said they do not depend on income from jackpot machines. Singapore Island Country Club's director of marketing and communications Cheang Sai Ming said SICC has "many operational income streams" and offers "various sport and recreational activities" for members' use, and it will comply with the additional measures.

Club patrons welcome new self-exclusion rules
By Seow Bei Yi, Alvin Chia and Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2017

Around three years ago, Benjamin (not his real name) lost $60,000 at the casino tables.

He placed himself on "self-exclusion" from casinos and jackpot rooms but, around three months ago, felt the urge to try his hand at the jackpot machines again.

"I saw my wife's NTUC membership card and used it to gain access to the jackpot machines at an NTUC Club near my home," said the 39-year-old sales manager. "I have been stopped before, but sometimes they never really check whose card I am using."

Thrice a week, he was at the jackpot machines from morning to evening. Within two months, he had lost around $7,000 and found himself borrowing money from friends.

Benjamin, whose wife does not know about his troubles, said he wished there were tighter regulations to prevent access to those like himself who are on exclusion lists.

"I think the biggest challenge for me is the temptation of all these places. Even if there were no casinos, or you excluded yourself from them, there are many clubhouses which have such jackpot rooms," said Benjamin, a father of two sons aged eight and 10.

He has now got his wish, after the Ministry of Home Affairs announced yesterday that it is tightening regulations over the operation of jackpot machines by clubs.

One key change is that access will be restricted, particularly for those on exclusion lists.

However, not everybody is convinced it is a good deal.

Mr Jimmy Hua, 83, who makes coffee at a coffee shop in Toa Payoh and claims he has lost "about $500,000" since he started playing jackpot machines in the 1960s, said he cannot control his addiction.

"I know that I will lose money, but I must still come whenever I am free or I have time," said Mr Hua, who was at the Tiong Bahru Football Club's clubhouse at People's Park Centre yesterday.

He does not intend to put himself on the self-exclusion list, noting: "I think the Government controls a bit too much and doesn't give us old people an avenue to use our time. I hope Tiong Bahru continues to operate because they are good and cheap."

Retiree Thor Saw Kim, 78, who visits Tiong Bahru's clubhouse daily, spending up to eight hours there at times, said jackpot machines are better than mahjong. "In mahjong, I will get scolded by others when I don't play well. But here, I play by myself and winning a little makes me feel happy," she added.

But others, like retired technician Jason Koh, 66, who spends five hours daily watching others play jackpot machines at Scarlet City at AMK Hub, welcomed the self-exclusion move.

He said: "Now, it is so easy for old folk to get an NTUC card and just enter to play... It is a pity all these regulars come here to waste their children's money, since they are mostly people in their 70s."

Part-time cleaner Oei Li Na, 60, who spends $100 to $200 each time punting at Scarlet City, recounted how she has seen some people losing $1,000 within two hours at the jackpot machines.

"If the Government closes more places, then it is good for these people. I would just find other places to pass my time," she added.

Mr Desmond Choo, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said raising the age limit and allowing those with one year of membership to enter jackpot rooms would compel businesses to pursue sustainable initiatives and not rely on fruit machines as an easy source of sustenance.

S-League clubs steel themselves for leaner times ahead
Resigned to jackpot curbs affecting earnings, they are hunting for sponsors, seeking to operate more efficiently
By Alvin Chia and John Pravin Kanesan, The Straits Times, 22 Jul 2017

S-League clubs are bracing themselves for tougher times ahead.

Most of the local clubs with jackpot operations are expecting their earnings to drop following Thursday's news that the Ministry of Home Affairs is tightening regulations surrounding jackpot operations. The new rules will be rolled out over the next two years.

With some of the moves aimed at restricting access, the clubs are resigned to losing a chunk of their jackpot takings.

Clubs typically spend between $1 million and $1.2 million a year, with $800,000 from Football Association of Singapore (FAS) subsidies. The rest is raised through sponsorship and jackpot operations.

The FAS council will meet national sports agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) next month to find out how much funding it will receive for the 2018 S-League season.

SportSG is now the gatekeeper of the subsidies the FAS receives annually from the Tote Board, which are reportedly worth $25 million, and the quantum of funding that clubs will receive is uncertain thus far.

Geylang International's general manager Andrew Ang called the situation a double whammy.

He said: "It is a dark cloud that is hanging ahead of us on the horizon.

"We will have to take a more conservative approach when we plan the budget for next year. We need to take a hard look at where our revenues are coming from and then plan our budget, given these uncertainties we face in our funding.

"If our funds are cut, then ultimately, the players and staff would suffer."

He said that in recent years, the Bedok-based club has been trying to reduce its reliance on jackpot takings, of which 30 per cent, or about $300,000, goes towards player salaries.

He added that Geylang has already made moves to wean itself off jackpot operations.

"We have been engaging and finding more sponsors," he said. "Next year, we have got small companies to advertise with us in smaller amounts, from $3,000 to $5,000. So, we are looking to do more in this approach."

Balestier Khalsa chairman S. Thavaneson, who is also an FAS vice-president, agreed that the clubs will be forced to tighten their purse strings.

He said: "All of us will be affected by these new regulations. Incomes will drop, but we will have to work within this. We need to cut our budget and be more efficient in our club operations and manpower."

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon of the National University of Singapore Business School said the clubs have their work cut out for them.

She said: "The short period of time doesn't help and, with so many clubs affected at one go and seeking other funding sources, the competition (for sponsorship support) will be stiff."

She suggested clubs diversify their business streams and explore projects such as starting a cafe business, noting: "Depending on one source (of income) is not advisable. Having said that, the club should not diversify too much such that it puts a strain on its resources."

She also noted that "each club must find a distinctive advantage that it may have over other clubs", whether it be a proximity advantage if it is targeting people who live close to the club, or a project that the club is known for or specialises in, such as coaching services.

The expected budget cuts will also add to the worries of S-League players, who already face uncertainty in their careers because many are signed on either one- or two-year contracts.

While Home United's national winger Faris Ramli, 24, believes his club will manage the issue well, he noted: "Most of us players are concerned with what is going to happen next season and about our future."

Hougang United's Fabian Kwok, 28, who also works as a marketing executive at Komoco Motors, said the uncertainly over wages will hurt the image of the sport.

He said: "It will affect the people who want to play football as a career.

"Football in Singapore is not that attractive as a career, so if the wages are lower, then definitely it will turn more people away."

Additional reporting by Nicholas De Silva

Clubs must do more to curb problem gambling: Experts
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 22 Jul 2017

It is not enough for clubs to follow just the letter of the new rules on jackpot rooms. They should be proactive in tackling problem gambling, say addiction experts.

This could include training staff to identify tell-tale signs of addiction, and programming fruit machines to stop after a certain amount of money has been spent.

Currently, clubs may voluntarily adopt the Centralised Self-Exclusion Scheme, facilitated by the National Council on Problem Gambling, where members may apply to bar themselves from the specific club. But only 25 of about 82 clubs operating such machines here have taken up the scheme.

This comes up to about 1,500 self-exclusions as of May, with individual clubs enforcing the list, said a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman.

If a club detects an individual on self-exclusion inside the jackpot machine room, it must ask the individual to leave immediately, or it may be penalised under the Private Lotteries Act, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). If the individual refuses to leave, he would have committed house trespass, and the club must call the police.

Mr Billy Lee, executive director of non-profit group Blessed Grace Social Services (BGSS), said: "As the exclusion doesn't cover all the clubs, there was no point in advising people to exclude themselves from the jackpot rooms."

The situation is set to change next May, with all clubs required to offer self-exclusion - to be applied across all their fruit machine rooms. It is among measures to be rolled out in the next two years aimed at protecting individuals from the ills of gambling.

But there are limits to what regulations can do, said addiction specialist Dr Thomas Lee, noting a person can easily choose not to apply for self-exclusion. Even the new rules to restrict operating hours of jackpot rooms may not help as patrons can return another day, he said.

Operators could train some staff to look out for patrons who may be in trouble by watching for tell-tale signs, Dr Lee suggested.

Currently, some clubs like NTUC Club, HomeTeamNS and Safra offer measures such as patron education and employee training to identify problem gamblers.

Under the new regime, requirements such as restricting advertising of fruit machines and enforcing exclusions are part of the permit conditions, said MSF. After implementation, MSF will work with MHA to review and consider new measures where necessary, it said.

But BGSS' Mr Lee added that a loophole remains as gamblers can sign up as club members to use the machines. He suggested having an entry fee for fruit machine rooms.

Mr Lawrence Tan, senior psychologist at the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), said operators can take steps such as configuring machines to stop play after a length of time or if a certain sum of money has been spent. "In addition, the jackpot machines can push out personalised messages to warn patrons of risky levels of play," he said.

From 2010 to last year, about 14 per cent of the gamblers Nams saw gambled on jackpot machines.

Missing the jackpot - and companionship of the clubhouse
By Alvin Chia, Seow Bei Yi and Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 22 Jul 2017

As many jackpot machines in Singapore clubhouses face the prospect of being eased out over the next two years, one particular group of patrons will mourn their passing: Not the die-hard gamblers, but those who throng such places for refreshments and companionship.

In a move to tackle the harms of gambling and to crack down on clubs that have been using these machines as their main activity and source of income, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced tougher rules for machine permits and quotas on Thursday.

It will also curb access to such machines, and said that while there are almost 1,900 machines in 82 clubs now, the number could drop by a third as tighter rules kick in.

The rules could take a toll on some clubs, with Gombak United chairman John Yap saying they could also hit Gombak's main income stream hard.

Among the Gombak clubhouse's regular patrons is a 33-year-old warehouse assistant who declined to be named: "I will feel sad if this place is forced to close (its machines)... this is a place where I can meet people, talk to them, drink coffee with them - it is a social thing."

Retiree Thor Saw Kim, 78, who visits Tiong Bahru Football Club every day, said: "I am an old person. What do you expect me to do if I don't come here? This is one of the better clubs because they provide food like red bean soup and free drinks like Ovaltine."

She added that she has seen family members visiting the clubhouse together as well: She once saw a 95-year-old man accompanied by his daughter when playing the jackpot machines.

A 63-year-old cleaner who wanted to be known only as Madam Ong said she visits the Tiong Bahru clubhouse to watch others gamble, and to enjoy the free air-conditioning and coffee.

But unlike others, she will not be too sorry to see it go, as it can cause "many people to suffer big losses".

Meanwhile, some said it does not matter if one club closes, as there are other options. An odd-job worker in his 50s who wanted to be known only as Ah Quee said even if the Tanjong Pagar United clubhouse, where he has a membership, closed its jackpot room, he could still visit other places like an NTUC Club near his home.

With some patrons, including elderly residents, standing to lose a social pastime if their clubhouse stops operating jackpot machines, MPs said it will be a community effort to engage them in other stimulating activities.

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, who is deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Social and Family Development, said: "Helping the elderly stay connected to social networks is important because we want to make sure they remain active and are not isolated. This has an impact on their health as well."

Mr Seah Kian Peng, who is GPC chairman for Social and Family Development, said grassroots organisations should step up their outreach to those who may be affected by the tighter regulations. "One way is to make sure that there are alternatives and diversity in activities offered, to cater to people with different interests," he said. "We can improve our outreach, make them even more accessible and lower the barrier of entry for participants."

Additional reporting by Nicholas de Silva

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