Sunday, June 27, 2010

Told as it is!

 NSTP's Group Editor, Zainul Arifin pens his thoughts on the sports betting issue in Malaysia in the Sunday Times today, and he could not have said better. Read his thoughts below, to have a better understanding of the issue.

SPORTS betting became a non-starter when it was made a political football. The writing was on the wall when it was politicised.
When it was announced that the government was considering re-issuing a sports betting licence, several states announced that it would not be allowed in their territories.
One could almost groan in cynicism, as most of them already have gaming outlets offering a number of gambling products and the states are benefiting from them, for example in local taxes paid.
Then, there are the tobacco and liquor businesses that are equally damaging in their own ways, but we choose to live with them.
Incidentally, two of the states proposing a ban on sports betting allow horse-racing and betting, and benefit from the spin-offs, too. I know some people suggest that horse-racing is a sport, but I am not sure how many of those who go to the racing track can say so with a straight face.
Perhaps Penang and Selangor can blame legacy issues, but if gambling offends them so much, there should be no qualms about them. In gaming, as in anything, I suppose all of us can be selectively hypocritical.
 Yet, seemingly, I sense, the perils or the sin of gaming played second fiddle to the political mileage one could get when it was announced that the government was considering re-issuing the licence to Ascot Sports.
Gotcha! It was an issue made for politics and it is a fairly safe bet that all the righteous among us would not look into promoting something that many religions abhor.
The opposition to sports betting for some was not just because it was morally reprehensible, socially destructive or religiously blasphemous. But opposing it brings one some political points, too.
Being the smart people they are, they know that in the bright light of analysis licensed gaming has its pluses as well. But politically, there is more to be gained, or less to be lost, by going against it.
It is politically convenient to take a stand that requires not much effort -- gambling is not good, so do not support it. Or in this case gambling is not good, so do not support any new initiative
One need not break into a sweat trying to explain or defend something as ambiguous as, for instance, the benefits of gaming.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with trying to get the upper political hand on issues, and sports betting is perhaps an issue better than most to chew on.
Can we assume that the political implications of the issue also weighed heavily on the government when it decided not to re-issue the licence to Ascot, as was the case in the initial opposition to sports betting?
I believe the gaming issue operates in several realms, including political, socio-religious as well as economic.
The issue of a sports betting licence is yet another grist for the political mill, offering us another issue to pit one against the other. It is now almost a given that be it the gaming issue, or 10th Malaysia Plan, or the annual budget legislation, civil service, the police force, Year Six examinations or the MRT, the nation would invariably adopt two major political postures.
This is also even when we agree on the same thing. For example, it is obvious now that those opposing sports betting and the government are on the same side. Yet let us not be surprised if we can find new ways of creating issues out of something many of us agree on, and now moot to boot.
In this day and age, it seems issues, in this case, sports betting, are only incidental to the greater cause of the nation's favourite pastime, which is politicking.
As a result, the politicisation, if there is such a word, of society is now almost complete. We are now able to create a political divide even if one party were to say that water is good for the body. Of course I exaggerate, but that is a story for another day.
The government's decision not to re-issue the licence is also understandable as most religions prohibit or discourage gambling. This is a core fundamental issue, and it is difficult to go around it.
The key support for the government these days, for example, are the Malay-Muslims, who while accommodative to the current gaming outlets and casino, are unlikely to look kindly on more gaming activities in the country.
Whether they gamble or not, or that the gaming outlets prohibit their participation, many Muslims are still uncomfortable with ventures that would compromise their faith.
Many cannot afford to be pragmatic on the issue of religion, no matter how much we slice and dice the gaming issue.
For example, it was estimated that billions of ringgit were lost due to illegal gambling operations, and billions more siphoned abroad due to Internet gaming. The licence was supposed to address the issue.
It makes perfect sense of course until many of us are required to define our pragmatism within our religious context, no matter what religion we profess.
Then the economic argument would be less attractive. Furthermore, the billions we were supposed to benefit from were never there in the first place and the government was better off not having a controversial source of revenue that could haunt it politically.
Similarly the argument that a licensed operation would help reduce underworld activities would also not sell well since the number of people patronising such services is small compared with the bigger populations that know nothing of such. Hence the general population is not aware of the underworld activities or the dangers that they could bring. What we need, say many, is for police enforcement to be increased, and the bookies to get out of our faces.
Because of so many things working against the argument, it was unlikely that the idea would sell politically. Thus Friday's announcement was to be expected with politics weighing heavily on the decision-making.
Governing requires a cold hard look at facts. The proposal to renew the sports betting licence or reduce subsidy or the goods and services tax are examples where pragmatism and political realities have to be taken into consideration, since governing also requires the support of the people.
Thus, what is good for the country, may not necessarily be good for politics. By the same token what is good for politics, and that includes excessive politicking, may not necessarily be good for the country.

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