(From left) Parish priest of St. Teresa, Father Michael Arro; National Addictions Management Service counsellor, Lawrence Tan; and Director of National Council on Problem Gambling, Charlotte Beck. Photo by Daniel Tay

SINGAPORE – Nine years ago, James (name has been changed) was a software developer in Cebu, Philippines, who, while highly paid, had barely enough to cover for his expenses after providing for his family. So when he wanted to impress his girlfriend, he turned to the casino for some extra cash.

On his first night there, he walked away with 3,000 pesos (S$90) – enough for 90 meals – and was able to treat his girlfriend to a wonderful time. Soon enough though, gambling took over his life, and James retreated from her altogether.

After each major loss, James would feel a ‘need’ to recover his losses that kept him returning to the casino to “take revenge”. Once, he even pawned a gold necklace, a gift from his mother, just to have enough to eat, having lost his money at the casino.

This situation continued for several years, with James at times spending his entire salary in one day at the casino. He often had to shift home and borrow money from friends just to get by.

It took an encounter of God’s mercy, and supportive friends to help James realise that “we’re always given a chance to come back to Him”. After this conversion experience, James no longer returned to the casino. He found a job in Singapore, and a new girlfriend. Now aged 34, James is happily married and serving in the St. Teresa’s Parish Pastoral Council.

“I love my wife. I love my family. I love God and God loves me. I hope it will be that way always,” said James as he wrapped up his testimony given Jun 19 at his parish’s forum on problem gambling.

The two-hour session saw about 100 people, mostly St. Teresa parishioners, attend three talks given by experts, and a panel discussion. The forum was a response to a growing concern raised by parishioners in St. Teresa’s recent parish assembly held January 2010.

During her talk at the forum, Charlotte Beck, Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), explained that the council serves to raise awareness of problem gambling, and encourage those with problems to seek help.

Problem gambling has existed among Singaporeans even before the opening of the casinos in Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands in January and April this year respectively. The debate on casinos sharpened and focused attention on problem gambling, and the NCPG was formed in 2005 to address it, said Ms Beck.

She highlighted that when it comes to gambling participation, “no particular group gambles more than any other” and no group is exempt from its effects.

According to two surveys made by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) in 2005 and 2008, about 55 percent of Singaporeans gamble more than once a year, betting more heavily on soccer, casino table games, and horse racing, among the different forms of gambling.

The 2005 and 2008 Ministry studies also indicated that about one to two percent of the population are probable pathological gamblers.

Ms Beck said that NCPG helps families of problem gamblers even if the gamblers do not want help, adding that it has introduced social safeguards such as voluntary self-exclusion, family exclusion, and third-party exclusion.

Voluntary self-exclusion takes place the moment one signs up at the NCPG website (see sidebar). Family exclusion takes about six weeks to process. Third-party exclusion refers to the government barring undischarged bankrupts and those on public assistance from entering casinos.

Individuals can also seek exclusion from jackpot rooms run by SAFRA, Home Team NS and NTUC Club, while those who are Telebet account holders can seek exclusion from Singapore Pools and Turf Club.

Many people who engage in recreational gambling gamble within their means and can stop gambling at any time, said Lawrence Tan, a counsellor and trained psychologist at the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS). Mr Tan was the second speaker at the forum.

The issue of problem gambling begins when “a person spends time and money in a way that is harmful to him or her”, said Mr Tan, who co-wrote the book “Don’t Gamble Your Life Away”. He differentiated problem gamblers from pathological gamblers, the latter being those who are unable to control their gambling addiction.

Mr Tan addressed several false beliefs held by problem gamblers, such as the illusion of control when gamblers think that skill or experience can improve their chances of winning.

He also pointed out that gamblers frequently cite losses as “near misses”; he said that gambling is like being pregnant: “You’re either pregnant or not. You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” Similarly, gamblers cannot have nearly won; they either win or lose.

Is gambling a sin?

In the third talk, moral theologian Father Paul Staes, CICM, addressed the age-old question of “Is gambling a sin?”

Quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Father Paul said, “Games of chance or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.”

The important thing, Father Paul said, is to ask: “What does my gambling do to me? Does it make me more joyful and relaxed? Or does it make me more vicious? What does my gambling do to others? Do I insult, belittle, or neglect them?”

Father Paul noted that it is hard to be joyful when high stakes are involved in gambling, and if we start believing in luck, it is a sign that we are short on faith. “Our lives can be so distorted and small [when we focus] on Lady Luck instead of Jesus Christ,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Father Arro also brought up the matter of luck: “Luck is simply a way of explaining things we cannot understand. If we say we are lucky or unlucky, we are simply creating a new god who distributes luck to one and none to another.”

By Daniel Tay
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Tell-tale signs of problem gambling

• Increasing preoccupation with gambling
• A need to bet more money, more frequently
• Restlessness or irritability when attempting to reduce or stop gambling
• Chasing losses
• A loss of control
• Continuation of gambling behaviour despite mounting negative consequences
• Looking for the “high” that comes from gambling
• Increasing isolation from family and friends
• Declining work performance
• Neglecting basic needs like money for food and rent
• Pressuring others for money as financial problems crop up
• Lying about how money is spent
• Escaping to other excesses (alcohol, drugs, sleep)
• Denying there is a problem

The key thing to note in observing such tell-tale signs is their consistency and frequency.

Help for problem gamblers and their families is available at both NAMS and the Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre.

The NCPG helpline number is 1800-6-668-668. It is run by NAMS during office hours and the Tanjong Pagar FSC after office hours and on weekends.

More information available at www.knowtheline.sg