Probe into football club funds sparks concern over addiction to jackpot machines
Nestled in heartland football stadiums, suburban malls and social clubs are private clubhouses with jackpot rooms filled with fruit machines.
An ongoing probe by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) into the suspected misuse of funds by Tiong Bahru Football Club (TBFC) has placed such operations under scrutiny.
While jackpot operations are a cash cow for clubs, Members of Parliament and gambling counsellors warn that these venues provide an easy and accessible outlet for gambling.
They called for additional safeguards to prevent gambling addicts from frequenting such places and for tighter regulations to ensure profits earned from jackpot operations go towards funding a club's core purpose.
"We must be keenly aware that easy access and proliferation of such jackpot machines can contribute to gambling addiction," said MP Desmond Choo, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law.
Football clubs have been using jackpot operations to fund football activities for more than two decades.
The Straits Times has reported that jackpot revenue helps cover around a third of an S.League club's operating costs.
TBFC, a modest side playing in the National Football League, raked in $36.8 million last year from their 29 jackpot machines.
The sum has raised eyebrows as it was significantly higher than what clubs in the top-tier S.League made - about 10 times more than what local football powerhouses Tampines Rovers earned in the 2013/2014 financial year.
TBFC's clubhouse and two others were raided by the CAD last Thursday.
Its chairman, Mr Bill Ng, his wife, Ms Bonnie Wong, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) general secretary Winston Lee and former Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP and FAS president Zainudin Nordin have been arrested and questioned.
Football clubs such as TBFC and other registered societies that want to run jackpot operations have to apply for a private lottery permit from the police.
While the permit conditions state that entry is for members only, checks by ST found membership can be obtained on the spot for as low as $5.
The integrated resorts charge a $100 levy to enter the casino.
MP Zainal Sapari said jackpot activities are important revenue generators for clubs here, and any heavy-handed clampdown would significantly affect their bottom lines.
Even so, more safeguards are needed to prevent addicts from gambling in jackpot rooms, he said. Mr Choo said one starting point could be to broaden casino exclusion orders to include all jackpot rooms and introduce visit limits.
Currently, punters or their family members can apply with the National Council on Problem Gambling to be excluded from only 24 clubs.
ST reported in 2014 that there were 93 such jackpot venues here, with about 2,000 fruit machines. Companies that supply jackpot machines said this number has remained stable.
Data shows that betting taxes collected by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore have grown over the years, reaching $2.7 billion in the 2015/2016 financial year. That figure includes casino tax, betting duty and private lotteries duty - the tax levied on jackpot clubs.
Mr Billy Lee, executive director of Blessed Grace Social Services, estimated that 10 per cent of the gambling addicts he sees have patronised jackpot clubs, including those run by football clubs. He called them a "back door" for addicts banned from the casinos.
Like other observers, he reckons that greater oversight is needed to ensure profits from jackpot operations go towards funding a club's core purpose.
For instance, Sinchi FC still maintain a clubhouse with six machines at Sultan Plaza despite having last played in the S.League in 2005.
The club had a gross income of $165,625, according to their latest returns filed with the Registry of Societies.
It was last reported in 2012 that the Chinese club's jackpot revenue was being used to pay off debts, but little is known of their footballing activities.
Said Mr Zainal: "If a football club has no more team, then the licence for it to run a jackpot room should be withdrawn."
MP Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the GPC for Social and Family Development, agreed that regulations governing jackpot clubs need to be updated.
"If there is anything good coming out of this, I think it's that it calls for an urgent review of the status quo," he said.