Its social impact is too big to ignore and will escalate once online gambling is legalized
Malaysian anti-gambling activists protest during a campaign to ban all forms of gambling in the country at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on July 3, 2010. (Photo: AFP)
Regulating the gambling industry in Malaysia can be tricky. The country’s dual legal system has a secular law allowing gambling with certain restrictions, while the Sharia law forbids it and declares gambling tax revenue unclean.
Clean or unclean, the government has been collecting tax from gambling operations since British rule. In 2019, gambling taxes came up to a sizeable US$1 billion.
The licensing, however, is limited to sweepstakes, horse racing and a casino. The three horse racing courses are the Penang, Perak, and Selangor Turf Clubs, while the only legal land-based casino is in the Genting Highlands.
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Sports betting and online gambling are illegal. Online gambling is what the federal government is now looking at. The reason is because Malaysia has an annual tax bleed of almost US$430 million due to illegal online gambling. Some say it is twice that amount.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim wants to regulate the industry and capture tax revenue from online gambling. It will be a nice tidy sum for a country that has been having deficit annual budgets since 1998.
There is a need to amend the country’s 70-year-old laws that have no provisions for online gambling, namely the Lotteries Act 1952, Common Gaming Houses Act 1953, Betting Act 1953, and Pool Betting Act 1967.
"When it comes to PAS and its actions, it is easy to opt for the progressive approach and look at gambling as a necessary evil"
The Islamist party PAS (Parti Islam Se Malaysia) and the other parties in the Muslim-Malay coalition Perikatan Nasional have other ideas. They decided to pursue the Sharia path.
Two state governments under the coalition have banned lottery and gaming activities — the northern states of Kedah in January and Perlis last month. They join two other states Kelantan and Terengganu that had banned gambling decades ago.
Moves like this do not overtly surprise the business community, but it can rattle them. In the last general election when the results showed that PAS had the highest number of seats in parliament, a total of US$730 million was wiped out from the market capitalization of the casino, sweepstakes and brewery operators listed on the local bourse, Bursa Malaysia.
PAS leaders have also said they would close the sole casino, Resorts World Genting in Pahang, should the Malay majority state fall into the hands of PAS. The fact that only non-Muslims are allowed to enter the casino and that Muslims have been prohibited from entering it since 1983 is not a mitigating factor for them.
When it comes to PAS and its actions, it is easy to opt for the progressive approach and look at gambling as a necessary evil because of its potential in revenue generation and job creation. But then, secular Singapore has a lot more restrictions on gambling than Malaysia. Online gambling is banned and its only horse racing course will close next year.
In Sarawak, where Christians outnumber all other religious groups, Muslim groups are opposing the state government’s plan to build a casino, saying there are other revenue-earning options. They say the social costs of gambling are irreversible and this is the same reason given by the state governments of Kedah and Perlis.
Social costs like an increase in criminal activities, loss of income, breakdown in relationships, and suicide are the very things that Catholic teaching warns us against.
CCC No. 2413 says: "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 enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”
"The Church needs to see that the social impact is too big to ignore and it will escalate once online gambling is legalized"
The Vatican decided in 2018 to reform its investment policies to be more in line with this teaching. It decided not to invest in industries that are contrary to church doctrine. Gambling is one of them, although it is not a sin.
“Legalizing gambling fuels addictions, creates more and more compulsive gamblers, and using the industry as a source of tax revenue is unethical,” said the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development within the Roman Curia.
The bishops in US and Philippines over the years have been vocal in opposing all forms of gambling but the Church in Malaysia has remained silent.
The Church needs to see that the social impact is too big to ignore and it will escalate once online gambling is legalized. The government recently revealed that online gambling is one of the top three social ills affecting Malaysia’s young people. The other two are bankruptcy and porn addiction.
A 2016 study shows that 30 percent of Malaysian adolescents surveyed did some form of gambling over a 12-month period and that a gambling parent has had a strong influence on them. Teenagers are already amassing huge gambling debts.
With so much at stake, the stand of the Malaysian Church ought to be made known.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
The Church in Asia needs objective and independent journalism to speak the truth about the Church and the state. With a network of professionally qualified journalists and editors across Asia, UCA News is all about this mission.
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