SCMP Friday, October 5, 2001

All bets are off


"It has been the tyranny of the loud-mouths," claimed Wai Kee-shun, convenor of the Alliance for Authorised Soccer Betting, giving his view of the government consultation exercise on the controversial issue that ends today.
That might be an exaggeration. But Mr Wai and the others who have sought to put the case for legalisation have seen their voices all but drowned out by the fierce opposition of a coalition of educationalists and religious groups, who plan to reinforce their case by holding a mass rally today.
Although the Government has yet to give a breakdown of the more than 3,000 responses received during the 14-week consultation, officials are already hinting opponents might be in the majority. Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee has said they appeared "well organised".
And this coalition already appears to have succeeded in winning sufficient support among major political parties to ensure there is little prospect of football gambling being allowed in the near future. The Democratic Party and its pro-Beijing rival, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, have vowed to block any attempt to introduce legislation on the issue.
This is despite the fact that limited soccer betting is about to start on the mainland. The Sports Lottery Management Centre of the State Education Bureau announced last Saturday that punters in 12 cities and provinces - including Guangdong and Shanghai - would be able to bet on games in the Italian and English leagues from October 22.
Some claim this strengthens the case for taking a similar step in Hong Kong. Political scientist Stephen Sze Man-hung said the SAR would "look silly" if it rejected a policy of its motherland. "The capitalist SAR would become a laughing stock if we were even more conservative than our communist mother country in this respect," said the principal lecturer at Polytechnic University's general education centre.
But the moralists insist it makes no difference. "It is 'one country, two systems' - what is allowed on the mainland might not necessarily be allowed in Hong Kong," said Wong Hak-lim, a spokesman for the Great Coalition to Oppose Legislation of Soccer Gambling. It is this umbrella coalition of more than 30 groups, many of which are coalitions of smaller groups, which is organising today's rally and which has been at the forefront of apparently successful efforts to turn the tide against allowing football betting. The coalition - comprising mostly groups of parents, teachers and students, social workers and religious workers - has led mass rallies and organised signature campaigns.
At times, their tactics have bordered on the emotional, stoking fears among parents that their children will start betting on school sports if soccer betting is allowed. The Professional Teachers' Union, chaired by Democrat Cheung Man-kwong, has led protests to urge the Government to stop pursuing legalising soccer gambling.
This has raised fears among some sociologists, who warn Hong Kong is becoming more conservative. "The moralists can perhaps claim initial success, but only the triad members benefit at the end of the day," said Dr Sze, in a reference to the prevalence of illegal betting activities run by local criminal syndicates. "The conservative moralists act like dictatorial parents. They like to set rules to control every aspect of their kids' lives."
Dr Sze also criticised the political parties for failing to take into account the overall interests of Hong Kong society. But Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a lecturer at the City University of Hong Kong's division of social studies, said it was natural for politicians to take sides with the "moral force".
"In no way can a political party here, however popular or influential it might be, become a ruling party," said Dr Choy. "So they don't need to bother about loss of gambling-tax revenue; they don't need to care about long-term gambling policy. They just need to say no, and they can present an image of being an upholder of moral values."
Mr Wai, of the Alliance for Authorised Soccer Betting, complained the consultation period had been marked by the absence of voices from the "silent majority". "There are many people who support it, but we rarely hear their voices. Just because people speak louder does not mean they are right. The Government should formulate policies which benefit the entire society, not just one small group."
His alliance, and a few others who back the idea, including the Hong Kong Football Association, say they do not have the necessary grassroots networks to lobby effectively for their case. Instead, they have had to rely on the Internet, organising a 1,300-signature petition in favour of legislation.
But the opponents appear to have no problems organising widespread activities. The Christian Anti-Soccer Gambling Alliance has mobilised people to send letters to the Government to express their opposition. And the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship Social Concern Group has called on the Government to take public morality into account over the issue.
Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the Commission on Home-School Co-operation, which opposes football betting, said: "It would be too late if we act only after our schools become casinos. We cannot underestimate the impact of football gambling on our youth."
A government-commissioned survey released by Polytechnic University early last month concluded that 2.6 per cent of 4,000 youths interviewed were addicted gamblers.
"It is not all together a bad thing if the influence of conservatism is growing in Hong Kong," said Mr Tik. "Chinese are conservative."
However, Hong Kong Football Association chairman Martin Hong Po-kui insists legalising soccer betting would not expose the SAR's younger generation to any new dangers. Mr Hong cited his association's surveys and said many young people were more interested in football gambling than betting on horse racing. In a petition to the Government, the association also argued: "Our young people have already come into contact with some forms of gambling . . . like horse-racing and mahjong. Authorising soccer betting would have little additional influence on them."
The motive for the Government's proposals is the threat posed to gambling-tax revenues by the increasing popularity of gambling on overseas-based Web sites. The Government believes Hong Kong's punters are being lured away from legitimate gambling on horse racing and the Mark Six lottery, organised by the Jockey Club. In 1999-2000, Jockey Club turnover was $83.4 billion. Last year, it dropped to $81.5 billion.
Recent surveys reveal that about 120,000 to 340,000 Hong Kong people have bet on soccer, according to the government consultative document on the subject. A conservative estimate puts the annual turnover at about $20 billion, but it is likely to increase next year due to the World Cup Finals in Japan and South Korea.

Under the existing gambling policy, the Government would authorise a type of gambling activity if there has been a "sufficiently large and persistent demand" for it - in terms of the number of punters and betting dollars - and if the problem "cannot practically and fully be tackled by law enforcement alone"; and if there is public support.

Meanwhile, inside the Central Government Offices, the opposition also seems to have gained the upper hand. It is understood Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung and Secretary for Home Affairs Lam Woon-kwong are not keen on the plan but that Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen supports it. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is believed to be more preoccupied with proposals to boost the economy and reportedly does not have any strong feelings on the issue.

But Dr Sze of Polytechnic University insists Mr Tung's administration would be acting against its own interests if it doesn't proceed with liberalisation. "Triad members would be very happy if our Government continues to ban football gambling."

Ng Kang-chung ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages.