SCMP Saturday, June 23, 2001

Gambling strategy

Legalising a criminal activity that is difficult to control is always a controversial move.
Purists argue that if the problem is one of enforcement, then the solution should lie in deploying more resources and using more ingenious means to check the crime, not in conceding defeat by legalising it. For them, whether the crime concerned should be banned is a matter of principle that is not negotiable.
That is the argument being expounded by an alliance of educators, social workers and religious workers who have joined hands to oppose a move to legalise soccer gambling. As gambling in any form is immoral, they argue that social gambling should be discouraged and commercial gambling prohibited.
Most societies find it difficult to completely ban commercial gambling. In Hong Kong, government policy has been to restrict it, but in the mid-1970s that restriction was relaxed when the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club (now the Hong Kong Jockey Club) was asked to operate a network of off-course betting centres in order to stamp out the rampant growth of illegal betting syndicates. Later, the club was also asked to introduce the Mark Six lottery to suppress similar ones run by triads.
The argument for legalisation is that instead of wasting enormous resources to combat illegal, but popular, gambling activities that are hard to eliminate, it is better to put them under proper control so that betting proceeds will fatten the public purse instead of criminals' wallets.
Despite high-profile raids mounted by the police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption against illegal soccer betting syndicates during the 1998 World Cup, the problem has persisted. Last year saw a dramatic rise in the amount of money and betting slips seized over that in 1999. Advances in telecommunications have made it so easy for local punters to place their bets on the Internet that bets worth at least $532 million were estimated to have been placed with betting sites located in one European country last year.
The argument that it is better to legalise soccer gambling than to make a futile attempt to eliminate it will not satisfy its opponents, and the Government knows that. That is probably why officials have gone one step further than just throwing in the towel. They have proposed professional counselling services for pathological gamblers and to conduct research on gambling behaviour, pathological gambling, the socio-economic impact of gambling, its effect on family life and the youth, and the like.
It may be argued that all these ostensibly well-intentioned efforts are mere window dressing. They will not negate the added social ills that will inevitably result from a rise in compulsive gambling due to the legalisation of one more form of gambling.
But unless we are prepared to use tough legal means to ban gambling altogether, as in Muslim societies, we will have to accept that making a quick buck by gambling is human nature. Better let people bet legally and openly than illegally and surreptitiously.