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In February 2015, the Remote Gambling Act came into force in Singapore. Like many of the other anti-gambling legislation, it is a prohibitive and punitive law that criminalizes the full range of remote gambling activities – users of online gambling portals, service providers and facilitators are all punishable under the Act. In Oct 2016, it was announced that Singapore Pools Private Limited and Singapore Turf Club – the existing two operators of legal gambling – will be exempted from the Act. They will be allowed to offer remote gambling services for their existing products under a set of conditions. Reports here:

MHA to issue exemption certificate to Singapore Pools and Turfclub for online betting services

This pattern of general criminalization with selective legalization is not new to Singapore, or other jurisdictions around the world. Indeed, the control of gambling is one of the most prominent instances of what political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls the “rule of exception”. In his rather apocalyptic diagnosis of the present, he takes the concentration camp as a signal of an emerging political order, where the suspension of law through the mechanism of law is becoming more and more common – or as he says, the exception has become the rule. Extrapolating from concentration camps, we can see this happening in refugee camps, the war on terrorism and homeland security measures in the US, where, in the name of global or territorial order, human rights and civil liberties are suspended.  The rule of exception is applied to protect (citizens from harm), to destroy (terrorists whose “deaths cannot be mourned”, in the words of Judith Butler) and to contain (refugees of war and perhaps whistle-blowers too). In political terms,  he outlines this as the “paradox of sovereignty” where the sovereign is both in and outside of law (I have an image of someone suffering from the Jerkyll and Hyde syndrome). In spatial terms, he proffers a concept – “inclusive exclusion” – to capture how the politics of control today is more about including, rather than excluding, people, thereby subjecting them to extra-juridical forms of surveillance or punishment.

Clearly, the criminalization of gambling and its pattern of exception is nowhere as apocalyptic as Agamben’s vision – he is of course writing as a philosopher and thus has the license to capture entire worlds in a slim book of 100 pages. But the trends he has observed and the concepts he has created are especially useful when we try to think about the relationship between state power and space through the lens of gambling. I am certain this relationship can be extended to most forms of popular illegalities like drinking, prostitution and homosexuality where criminalization is only effective if it is not applied consistently or obeyed slavishly. After all, as sociologists of deviance have argued, popular illegalities have a stabilizing function on society – it is precisely because there are outlets to such popular activities (for social, cultural and economic reasons) that their blanket criminalization does not cause social upheaval.

After reading through the parliamentary debates on the Remote Gambling Act and the exchanges on social media, I am inclined, as historians tend to do in an annoying fashion, to moan about how things have not changed much. The questions and answers are exactly the same as those raised in the past – the legalization of the national lottery and offcourse betting, the nationalization of the Turf Club, the raising of betting taxes and the licensing of the casinos. On social media, the snide remarks and caustic accusations of hypocrisy remind me of what I have read in the Chinese newspapers and the Straits Times in the 1970s and 80s – vociferous voices were not as dampened as today in mainstream media.

In a tongue-in-cheek manner, I thought I might summarise the last 50 years of debate in Singapore about the criminalization of gambling as vice in an equation:

Illegal Gambling (Human Weakness + Crime) – Legal Gambling (National Productivity + Fun) = 0

1. Illegal Gambling comes before Legal Gambling because, in this ideological construction, the Legal Gambling is reactionary. It is because of the former that the latter is necessary.

2. The ideal result (A+B = 0) is that they cancel each other out perfectly. If the result is positive, then, it is often a case for legal gambling to increase (which is the argument here – online gambling has led to an increase in illegal gambling, hence legal gambling must catch up). If the result is negative, then, legal gambling has overstepped its moral boundaries – instead of negating illegal gambling by catering to a natural quantum of desire in the population to gamble, it is now encouraging and stimulating this desire.

3. The content of Illegal gambling is human weakness and crime while that of legal gambling is national productivity and fun. The transformation of this content is the moral justification for the legalization of vice, or what I call “moral laundering”. By diverting money from criminal syndicates to the national coffer (and nation-building projects like the old National Stadium and Esplanade, both of which were funded by lottery money) ‘bad money’ becomes ‘good money’.

Of course, this equation is not about how things really are or should be, but how things are represented. It is the logic that justifies how governments act and how they justify their actions to their citizens. As such, the first step to critical thinking is to unpack this equation. I offer just a few:

1. The ideological construction that Illegal Gambling exists a priori to Legal Gambling is false. As colonial lawyer Sir Roland Braddell wrote in his commentary on the Common Gaming House Ordinance, it is through law that hitherto socially acceptable activities (like public gambling, chap ji kee, etc) are transformed into crime. Thus, it is also true that legal gambling creates its criminal half beforehand in order for it to exist. They in fact feed on each other.

2. This equation cannot be proved. No one can prove that legal gambling only mops up illegal gambling and doesn’t do more. No one can prove the case of the perfect balance. Therefore, the idea of an ideal balance functions more as a myth, a false hope that is used to lead us to believe in a course of action.

And I am sure there are many more … .

(Picture from: Todayonline, Dec 26, 2013 http://www.todayonline.com/voices/redistribute-prize-money-singapore-sweep-toto-winners)

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