Malaysia’s anti-gambling backlash escalates

by Dan Townend* More than 2,000 mostly Malay Muslim supporters launched the movement with a demonstration at Kuala Lumpar’s national mosque on Saturday, chanting "We hate gambling" and "Gambling is for the weak". The campaign follows Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement last week that his government were dropping plans to allow sports betting after widespread anger, largely from the Muslim majority and political opponents. Nasrudin Hassan Tantawi, youth chief of the Conservative Islamic opposition party PAS, said the new campaign was aimed at stopping gambling across the country. Malaysia currently bans its majority Muslim population from gambling but allows gaming for non-Muslims at a casino in Genting Highlands, on horseracing and the national lottery. "We want to eliminate gambling on ships at sea, from the kampongs and all the way to the peak of Genting Highlands," he said. "It cannot be done immediately but on a phase by phase basis so that its acceptable to all religions and gambling can be totally eliminated." A spokesman for the coalition Movement Against Gambling (GMJ) said the rally aimed to force the government to look into three issues: educating the public about the problems of gambling, increasing state enforcement on gambling and reducing the number of gambling licences granted. Campaign secretary Suhaizat Kaiat said: “I have seen how gambling can cause families to break up and many other domestic problems. Not only Islam but all religions abhor gambling as it causes more harm than good.” He also slammed the government for saying that gambling was part of certain ethnic groups’ culture. Another campaign leader, PKR youth leader Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akim said the government was “digging its own grave” with the gambling issue. He also questioned the government’s excuse of legalising gambling under the pretext of increasing revenue for the treasury. “Eradicate corruption and the nation’s coffers would be fine. No need for gambling revenue,” he said. The campaigners also launched a booklet including allegations that gambling tycoons were running the country. The claims are likely to put more pressure on a government which is seen as having lost face in the way it has handled the gambling issue – particularly after further details emerged of what the government had or had not agreed with prospective gaming firms. Ascot Sports, a company controlled by influential tycoon Vincent Tan, said in May it had been granted a licence by ministers to offer odds for sports, including the English Premier League season. Its plans were dashed by the government’s surprise U-turn last week, although Prime Minister Najib claimed at the time that no formal decision had been made before last week’s final ruling. However, last week Tan met with gaming industry analysts where he showed a letter from the Finance Ministry dated January 13 this year stating that Ascot could have a licence to implement a system of legalised sports betting. It is understood that at the meeting he also raised the issue of compensation for the firm for costs and lost revenue and said he expected his gaming group Berjaya to be paid for the cancelled licence. In contrast, Prime Minister Najib said that there would be no compensation since a final decision had not been taken before last week. Property-to-gaming group Berjaya Corp, whose chief executive and largest shareholder is Mr Tan, aborted its planned acquisition of a 70 percent stake in Ascots Sports for $163.9m after the licence decision. *GamblingCompliance/ Macau Business