by Marilyn Peh on

The recent legalisation of online gambling here has raised concerns about problem gambling. THE PRIDE speaks to a recovered problem gambler about the struggles he went through, and still goes through today. We are not naming him to protect his identity.

It started with the occasional visit to the Genting casinos with his father as a teenager.

Although below the legal age to gamble as a 15-year-old, L’s mature features gave him easy access to the gaming lounges, where he would while the time away on slot machines using a small sum his father would give him.

An innocuous source of entertainment soon evolved into casual betting in his late teens, where he would wager on European football matches through a friend. For the avid football lover, betting on these matches was something to do in the wee hours of the morning when he found sleep hard to come by.

“Being up at night, there were always football matches going on. The timing was perfect, and when I got something right, I felt good. It was never about wanting to win money, but the feeling of satisfaction I had when the results of the game turned out exactly as I predicted.”

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Fuelled by the thrill of getting his bets right, things took a drastic turn in L’s early 30s. Having amassed considerable savings, his ambition grew. Over a year where he would bet on up to 60 matches a week, $30,000 in savings quickly dwindled and turned into $30,000 of debt. At the height of his troubles, he would put up to $5,000 behind a match out of desperation to recoup his losses.

The full force of L’s problems hit him when his electricity finally got cut off. Pressure from creditors mounted. While initially accommodating, they grew more hostile and aggressive in hounding him to pay up. Despite managing to keep a lid on his gambling addiction through the years, L was forced to turn to his family for help.

“My dad helped me to pay off the debt. Although he never nagged me, I knew he was tremendously disappointed and it made me feel incredibly guilty.”

According to figures jointly released by the Thye Hua Kwan Problem Gambling Recovery Centre and the National Addictions Management Service at the Institute of Mental Health, a total of 2,700 gamblers sought treatment between 2012 and 2014. The number is 60 per cent more than in the three-year period prior. Although attributed to the increased public education efforts encouraging gambling addicts to seek help, it raises some questions on just how many others are out there like L, who have chosen not to seek treatment.

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The problem is exacerbated by the scourge of syndicates who offer online services for live betting and more dangerously, the option to gamble on credit. The lack of restriction on how far a losing gambler can continue to stretch his bets makes it easy for many to go past their limits.

Acknowledging this, the authorities have just announced that lottery operators Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club will soon be allowed to launch online gambling services, despite a ban on remote gambling effected in 2014. While the rationale to provide gamblers with a safe space to gamble seems well-intentioned with the introduction of registration and financial background checks, some have criticised the move as sending out mixed signals that our society condones gambling.

In practical terms, an official and controlled gambling environment may make little difference to the habits of those already involved in illegal online gaming. The higher odds offered on illegal sites is a key differentiator, as L observed that it will mainly be those who are already placing bets at the two legal operators that will open online accounts with them.

Despite falling off the wagon again in his mid-30s, L remained adamant that it was not the government’s onus to nanny gamblers. “It’s not the government’s job to tell us how to behave and watch over everything we do. You can’t govern the Internet. We need to be responsible for ourselves past a certain age.”

Today, at the age of 40, gambling has formed a part of L’s consciousness for more than half his life, and he sees it as a compulsion he will always have to manage. He reflected, “If I have some spare cash lying around… I don’t know. The itch is constant, even though I tell myself not to do it.”

The second time he found himself in trouble, a $5,000 debt ballooned to $15,000 after he borrowed from licensed moneylenders.

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“You would think that licensed moneylenders are clean, but they operate like loansharks. They pressure you in the same way, threatening to embarrass you at the office or to expose you to your family.”

Afraid to approach his father again, L agonised for days before summoning the gall to speak to a friend. His friend paid off his creditors while imposing a strict repayment schedule that L has to fulfil. Two years on, L is still paying off his debt with more than half of his monthly income. Although he was never a spendthrift to begin with, L now excuses himself from social outings, especially shying away from expensive meals or holidays with friends and family.

In large part, it is the shame of having to get his loved ones involved to resolve his debt that has deterred him from going back to gambling.

“Not being able to look my friend in the eye, getting burnt and feeling ashamed in front of my friends… These are things that have made a deeper impact on me than any advertisement or counsellor could.”