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Sunday June 27, 2010

A hard habit to break

Gambling and betting may not be an illegal activity for some, but the risks are bad for all when they get in too deep.

sunday@thestar.com.my

Ng Tian Yee knows only too well the suffering gambling can bring.

“My father’s gambling habit meant we were constantly short of money, so our life was hard. Then when his gambling debt became too much to pay off, my father ran away and abandoned us. We had no choice but to leave our village in Parit Buntar (Perak) to avoid the moneylenders. My mother then had to work as a maid to support us,” he says.

Dicey attraction: A growing number of young people are getting hooked on gambling.

Yet, despite his harrowing childhood experience, Ng, now 37, could not help falling into the same trap.

“I could see how I was becoming like my father but I did not know how to get out of it,” he shares.

His sister gave him an unconventional solution – take up a job as a dealer at the Casino de Genting in Genting Highlands. The casino has a strict rule prohibiting employees from gambling, which his sister thought would stop him from succumbing to his addiction.

“My sister thought that working in Genting would force me to discipline myself but for me, it was not about winning money. I loved everything about the game – the chips, the cards ... What she did not expect was for me to start an underground casino,” he says with a chuckle.

He was shown the door when the management unearthed his underground operation. Unable to kick his unhealthy habit, Ng got deeper and deeper into gambling – putting his money on 4-D, horse racing and sports betting – until he racked up a debt of RM500,000. His life slowly spiralled out of control as loan sharks started hounding him and his family.

“I lost almost everything and the Ah Longs harassed me and my family – throwing red paint at my house and pasting posters around the neighbourhood to shame me. They bothered my neighbours too, so they called the police to try and kick us out of the area. “The Ah Longs even went to my wife’s workplace and harassed her. They pasted a poster of me in the lift of her office. It did not only humiliate her but also spoiled her chance of getting a promotion. But she had to conti­nue working there because we needed the money,” Ng recalls.

He adds that he knew he had to change for the sake of his wife and child but he did not know how he could do it until he saw a news report on the Gamblers Rehab Centre (GRC) located in Bandar Tasik Selatan, Kuala Lumpur.

He joined the GRC programme and gradually managed to turn his life around. That was in 2006 and Ng says he has been “clean” since.

Don’t bet on it: The Gamblers Rehab Centre conducts various outreach programmes to raise awareness on the dangers of gambling addiction. Ng Tian Yee is second from left.

“I worked hard to pay off my loan and am debt-free now. I owe my wife a lot; she stayed with me through it all. I pawned all her jewellery, including her wedding ring.

It is a daily struggle to stay away from gambling but when I look at my six-year-old kid, I know I have to do it for him,” says Ng, who is now a counsellor at GRC. As GRC president David Chiang points out, cases like Ng are common.

Chiang, who is also a former gambler, also paid a high cost for his gambling addiction. “I was so lost in my obsession chasing the next big win I did not even realise that I was neglecting my family. Once I spent 36 hours non-stop in a mahjong game. I lost track of everything including the date, time and even where I was. One day, my wife lost her patience, packed her things, took the children and left me,” he relates.

It was only then that he came to his senses. “I lost a lot of money gambling but losing my family was my biggest loss, and I knew that I had to make a change.”

A widespread problem

However, Chiang knows that kicking the gambling habit is easier said than done. “I stopped gambling about 17 years ago but it is a lifelong struggle because gambling is like a cancerous cell.” One reason, he says, is that it is much too easy to gamble in Malaysia.

“All you need is RM1; you can just pop into the 4-D or 3-D shop and make a bet. Or you can just make a phone call to the underground bookie and make a bet. Now, we can even go on the Internet. “The worst thing is that you are allowed to bet or gamble even when you don’t have the cash in hand – they offer to open an account for you. This is where many fall into the debt trap,” he says.

Hence, at the GRC, gambling addicts who seek help are given shelter at hostels for three months to cut them off from any related temptations or gangs.

“They have to undergo an intensive programme where they learn about the dangers of gambling and undergo counselling to kick the habit,” he says.

Chiang admits that there are those who use the centre as a refuge from Ah Longs. “We know that some are just using us to run away from Ah Longs but our main concern is the family, so we don’t mind. That tense period is crucial; it is a life-saving period. If you look at reports, you can see that there are many cases of family suicides because of Ah Long debts.

“The time in the shelter allows them to cool down and think about what to do to solve their problem,” he says. In fact, says GRC treasurer Goh Ah Liong, the centre was set up in 2003 to address the rising Ah Long violence cases. “Our founder, Reverend Dorcas Wong, was concerned with the high number of violent acts by Ah Longs. When he studied the phenomenon, he realised that the root of the problem was gambling, and decided to focus on gambling.” According to Goh, there are many similar gambling rehabilitation centres nationwide but the GRC is one of the few with a house-in programme.

There are currently four GRC centres in the country, including one in Kluang, Johor and Seremban, Negri Sembilan. Therapy at the GRC is built around religious and spiritual beliefs. Every week, a fellowship meeting is held for the participants and rehabilitated gamblers to share their experiences as well as give support to each other. As of May 2010, adds Goh, more than 2,000 people have undergone the rehabilitation programme.

“Usually the intervention comes from the wife and increasingly, from parents of young students who find themselves deep in gambling debt,” he says, stressing that the centre has a strict policy that each participant has to enrol in the programme voluntarily.

Inevitably, says Chiang, not all will stay on track after completing the programme. “Some will return to their bad habits but we believe that it is important for the community because one gambler does not only destroy his own life but he also causes suffering to at least 25 others from his family, relatives, neighbours to colleagues. There is a ripple effect.”

He estimates that there are about 80,000 gamblers in the country, which means some two million nationwide are affected by the gambling problem.

A main worry now is the growing number of young people getting hooked on gambling. One contributing factor is the accessibility of the Internet, which has made it easier to set up online betting schemes as well as the growth of live telecasts of international sports, says Goh.

The number of bettors spike further during major international sports events like the current World Cup. During this tournament alone, the police have tracked up to 200,000 bettors nationwide, each forking out from RM50 to RM2,000 per match. According to a report in a Chinese daily, some 20% of secondary students have learnt to bet online while an increasing number is being recruited as runners for illegal bookies.

A bad habit

Goh concedes that the problem is most serious among the Chinese. Many children learn how to gamble at a young age at family gatherings. They start from a small amount like 50 sen before slowly moving on to bigger amounts, he says.

“Many parents don’t object to young children gambling if they win. They only object when the children lose but no one can win all the time. And the young kids won’t realise how deep in trouble they are until they start losing a lot of money or incurring a high debt.”

However, contrary to common belief, he stresses, gambling is not a Chinese culture or tradition.

Chiang concurs, arguing that while it is admittedly a common activity for Chinese families, it stemmed from a lack of recreational outlets in the past.

“In the olden days, there was no other entertainment or activity for families when they got together for Chinese New Year or other family functions. Playing card games was one main way to get the family together and, to make it more exciting, many gambled with small amounts of money. This, however, does not make it a tradition or culture,” he opines, adding that the practice became widespread when some continued to gamble with their friends and colleagues.

“This is when they become hooked, creating a problem.

“They won’t realise they are addicted to gambling until they are deep in it. Gambling is a bad habit, like smoking and drugs.”

The GRC is working hard to dispel the myth by educating the public, specifically the Chinese community, on the dangers of gambling addiction.

“And the main thing we highlight is that gambling is a bad habit, not a culture or tradition,” he says.

Gleneagles Intan Medical Centre addiction therapist Chris Sekar agrees that gambling is a behavioural addiction.

“No one is born to be an addict. The addictive personality is a learned personality. If your parents are addicts, then you would have a genetic predisposition to be an addict too. You have potential, but that still has to be triggered by other factors such as the home environment and external influence,” he says, highlighting that with the right intervention from family members and loved ones, gambling addicts can be helped to kick their addiction.

“Some of the tell-tale signs of a gambling problem is when the gambling addict starts borrowing money and lying to cover up his or her problem.

“Another sign is delusion. In gambling, this means the gambler will start believing that he can win with the next bet and settle all his debts,” he warns. Chiang notes that herein lies one of the GRC’s main challenges – the entrenched Chinese belief of every person’s turning feng shui.

“Many gamblers continue to gamble or place bets even after a losing streak because they believe that luck rotates, and it will soon be their turn to win.”

With the complexities in dealing with the rising gambling addiction in the country, Chiang and Goh are happy that the Govern­ment has decided not to legalise sports betting.

“Although there are many illegal gambling joints and illegal betting websites, we can do without another outlet, especially since sports betting is all year-round, not just during the World Cup,” says Chiang.

“And with growing access to the Internet, it will be difficult to regulate who can bet and how much they can gamble away.”

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