Thu, Jul 10, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Hong Kong enters final stage of gambling debate

REUTERS , HONG KONG

Hong Kong law-makers kicked off their last debate on legalizing soccer gambling yesterday, a move aimed at booting out illegal bookmakers and bringing the government billions of dollars in much-needed revenue.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the bill today.

The issue has evoked strong passions in this gambling-mad city, but the government is believed to have secured backing from some independent legislators after intense last-minute lobbying.

If the bill is passed, Hong Kong would join Macau, Singapore and China as the few places in Asia where some form of betting on football is allowed. Other Asian governments eager for fresh revenue are likely to closely monitor the scheme.

Raising their palms heavenward, a group of Christians gathered outside the Legislative Council building yesterday morning to urge lawmakers to strike down the bill, saying it would corrupt the young.

"The government is our parent: don't harm the citizens, your children," a placard read.

In a rare move, Hong Kong's main democratic party and its biggest pro-China party are set to join forces to oppose the bill.

The parties have been at each others' throats for years over a variety of issues, most recently the government's planned anti-subversion bill, which has ballooned into the territory's biggest political crisis in decades.

But Audrey Eu, a prominent lawyer and independent legislator, said: "I feel laws are not meant to govern moral standards. The law is to prevent real criminal acts. Gambling is not a criminal act and many people are capable of controlling themselves."

The government estimates that punters bet over US$10 billion a year on football through small-time bookies, who are often connected to organized crime.

It expects HK$30 billion (US$3.85 billion) a year will be spent by punters on legal betting with more than HK$1 billion ($128 million) likely to go into its coffers.

Some sources said that figure was conservative, and predicted the government's haul could easily reach HK$5 billion a year.

Most of the football bets placed in Hong Kong involve putting money on top British or European matches, which are often shown live on local cable television.

While these are sizeable sums, they would do little to close the territory's gaping budget shortfall.

The deficit surged to a record HK$61.7 billion in the fiscal year ended in March 2003 or 5.5 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest in Asia.

The figure is expected to be even higher this year as the SARS outbreak left the economy teetering on the edge of recession.

If the bill is passed, the operating license will go to Hong Kong's Jockey Club, which controls horseracing and Mark Six lotteries -- currently the only two legal forms of gambling in Hong Kong.

The Jockey Club is the biggest taxpayer in Hong Kong and the biggest contributor to charity.

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