In a makeshift room inside St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore’s Central Business District, small groups of people gather every Thursday evening to share their stories and seek help for gambling addiction. It is a group made up of people from numerous backgrounds: some show up wearing polished, corporate attire while others sit in shorts and flip-flops looking disheveled. Topics range from overcoming temptation to dealing with debt collectors. One attendee admits to having borrowed around S$200,000 (US$157,680) from over 20 different money lenders, both legal and illegal. The rest of the largely male group later cite him as they share their stories for the week, candidly crediting him for making them feel better about their debts. A number are family members of the gamblers, turning up faithfully to show their support as well as the desire to understand their struggles. Ronnie Soh, one of the facilitators, moderates the discussion, shifting the focus from one attendee to the next. Along with fellow recovery volunteer Raymond Lim, he encourages them to not lose sight of their goals. Soh, 31, found himself gambling at the age of 21. “You can learn many vices when you’re in the army,” he says, recalling the commonplace drinking, drugs and womanizing habits among military men. We meet at a McDonald’s in the east of Singapore. It is a Saturday morning, and the fast food restaurant is crowded with families. Ronnie sits quietly in a maroon button-up, fiddling with his phone. Amid the chatter, he recalls the generational influence that his father, a “hardcore gambler,” had on him.
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While he grew up resenting his father for his gambling habits, his own life took an ironic turn when he discovered the thrill of betting on soccer matches. “It was fast money,” he says. “With soccer betting, I would know if I won money within 90 minutes… every night I’d just be in front of the computer placing bets.” His debts grew over the years, eventually snowballing to a six-figure sum. Then a staff sergeant who had been with the Singapore Armed Forces for 10 years, Ronnie was dismissed when illegal money lenders began making harassing phone calls to the office. “We were doing sensitive work, so it became a nuisance and it wasn’t something they could contain,” he reflects. His parents bailed him out, selling the house to repay his debts. Now a sales manager, Ronnie is part of the seekers’ group, a community of recovering gambling addicts who are actively shifting their priorities toward a life without gambling. Still, he admits that the temptation is still there and will probably always remain. For many gamblers, the adrenaline rush of winning a large sum of money is all it takes. A recently published study by the University of Exeter and Swansea University in the United Kingdom has shown that gamblers respond almost as positively to a near win as when they actually hit the jackpot. With rising costs of living, as well as the availability of mobile internet gambling, it is unsurprising that gambling addiction is a rising trend in Singapore society. For much of the public, the debate surrounding gambling started when Singapore allowed the building of two casinos in a wider bid to draw in tourism dollars. Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands opened in 2010, and together generated revenues of S$6 billion in 2013, just short of the S$6.5 billion generated in Las Vegas. Singapore is placed third in terms of global gaming revenue, behind Las Vegas and Macau. In a bid to contain the negative social side effects, the government set up the National Council on Problem Gambling in 2005. Its website offers research, hotlines and information on casino visit limits and exclusion measures. Among these is a S$100 levy that locals must pay in order to enter a casino. Despite these efforts, the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) revealed in 2011 that there had been a 61.5 percent rise in the number of calls related to gambling and loan sharks compared to two years earlier. Dick Lum is the soft spoken executive director of One Hope Centre, an organization devoted to helping clients recover from gambling addiction. He attributes the growing awareness of resources for people with gambling problems to their willingness to come forward and admit they need help. “Ten years ago with education on gambling addiction hardly available, it used to be shameful for people to be known as having this addiction," Lum said. "But these days, with credible resources available and coupled with education, people are more aware of the problems that affect them, and thus more willing to come forward and seek help." Since 2005, One Hope Centre has been running support groups for those who seek help from them. The average age range, according to the center, is 40s to late 50s. “Gambling addiction counseling is a very specialized field, and many counseling centers are not equipped to handle that. Most of the time when a gambler knocks at their door, they will be referred to us,” says Lum. One Hope Centre is an independent organization that receives donations from individuals, other organizations and churches. A new issue the center is targeting is the prevalence of gambling among young people, a phenomenon driven by remote gambling on smart phones. The little-researched topic has drawn attention recently, with the remote gambling industry estimated to be worth S$370 million in 2012, and poised to increase by six or seven percent annually. Singapore Pools, the only legal lottery operator in Singapore, announced in December plans to launch its first licensed gambling website, the news coming several weeks after the government announced plans to curb remote gambling. The legal efforts to draw lines between what is permitted and what is not are limited, and the addictive expectation that comes with winning, or nearly winning, is undiminished. It is 9:30pm, and the support group session is ending at the cathedral. The attendees slowly file out, and within minutes, merge into the crowd in downtown Singapore.