Just Legalize Gambling…

(The following blog/article was published in The Nation newspaper last Saturday. Here below, however, is the originally un-edited submission)

(Steve’s neighbour enjoying a game of Hi-Lo…with the front door bolted!)

Well, just one more month to go before yet another terrific showdown between Thailand’s brainiest bunch of so-called intellectuals. For the voters this time around, it’s gonna be one extremely tricky task to select their party of choice, as all the policies promised by each and every party are truly wonderful.

Wow, all the kids could be getting a funky new free education for 12 years and all the poor old-pensioners, a groovy welfare system of some sort. Where all the money is going to come from, to implement such policies – well, that’s a story for another day. Now, if I were one of the lucky few to be in charge of writing up some practical economical policies, I might propose doing away with that law concerning having to wear motorbike helmets. Since most Thais in the provinces never adhere to such a regulation, hundreds of millions of baht ends up in the wallets of dodgy traffic law enforcers each month. What a true waste of money! Ok, perhaps I’m only kidding, but on the subject of transport, how about attempting to solve Bangkok’s horrendous traffic congestion by charging motorists 300 Baht to take their vehicle into town every day? That way, perhaps folk will be more inclined to jump in taxis instead. I mean, the capital already has 100,000 taxi cabs too many.

Now, governments for donkey’s years have continually tried to indoctrinate us about the health hazards concerning smoking and drinking. And, to encourage folk to give up, have annually bumped up the cost by the likes of a staggering 3 Baht. What a load of nonsense! If any government were honestly serious about such health concerns, then they’d double the prices overnight. Oops, but then again, if half the population gave up such habits, where would any government get most of its tax money from?

Well, we all know that besides eating spicy papaya salad, a hefty percentage of the population here, also has an amazing infatuation for none another than ‘breaking laws’. Tell them that something is now illegal and by jove, they’ll go out of their way to enjoy it. Now, what is the point in having a law then, if most people are simply going to ignore it? Most Thais are seriously going to disagree with what I have to write today, but I would honestly propose that most laws on gambling be done away with.

(Second only to watching soap operas, Thailand’s most beloved pastime – gambling on the lottery!)

Let’s start right at the top of social ladder and all those folk with plenty of spare cash. One of their favourite weekend retreats, besides some ritzy over-priced department store, is no other than the Cambodian border. What a fine place that is on a Saturday morning with thousands of people fighting to get across first and into their swanky casino of choice. Have a good look around at all the folk and you can be rest assured that you will spot some familiar faces from the news – they are of course, some well-to-do politicians. Then, when the rather wealthy, get bored of the likes of Poipet, they can be witnessed instead boarding an airplane to another Asian gambling destination. I hasten to add that such foreign governments can literally be heard laughing at the amount of tax being earned at Thailand’s expense.

As for the average middle-class urban lad, he has plenty of options to semi-legal gambling without having to exit the country – he needs only a credit card and an online connection. The government deems it correct to block naughty rude websites but it doesn’t bother with blocking betting websites! If you don’t believe me, get out your Internet connection and see for yourself – no anonymous proxy server needed! As you could well imagine, most of the online betting is to do with football. Even if you aren’t much of a computer fad, never mind – pop into some restaurant or bar showing the football on a Saturday evening and there will be plenty of guys pointing you in the direction of a reputable bookie. This kind of illegal gambling is so rampant in Thailand that it was even estimated that Thais bet more money on the last World Cup than the whole of the UK.

Now, if you are female and football isn’t exactly your cup of tea, then you can always join half the upcountry village population who love nothing more than gambling on cards. Quite easy to spot a destination to play, just look around for a house which has 50 pairs of flip-flops laid out front, with all doors and windows closed shut. Should you be wondering to why the police often don’t bother clamping down on such illegal behaviour, just ask the local cop chief and he may explain that monthly donations to the station’s whiskey fund just don’t simply fall from trees.

A lot of Thais would be up in arms at my proposal, by declaring that since this is a Buddhist country, it would be awful to legalize such a bad habit – gambling is a sin. But then again, there are countless holy temples scattered around the country which indulge in gambling and the practice of foretelling the lucky numbers for the thrice monthly government lottery. In fact, you can bet on it, that there are several sensational stories every month in a Thai language newspaper about thousands flocking to see some monk who has miraculously forecast correctly, the recent two-digit number for the underground lottery. Of course, such heavenly advice doesn’t come for free and a nice donation to the temple fund is much appreciated.

(Monks getting fined for playing cards, after being caught by special detectives!)

On the subject of the lottery, and especially the legal government one, can you explain to me the difference, if any, there is between gambling on that and say on football? The only difference I can think of personally is that the latter pays out far better odds!

In fact, besides the government lottery, Thailand is actually home to lots of legal gambling but instead of cash pay-outs, the prizes are instead in the form of nice prizes. Just turn on your TV any time of the day and there is a decent chance that you maybe encouraged to send in a stack of 5 Baht SMSs to win the likes of a new mobile phone or even a splendid holiday in Bhutan. Moreover, just pick up any newspaper daily and you may find adverts for some attractive competitions offered by the likes of some airline company. But again, since you have to spend money to have a chance of winning you can be assured that that is also a form of gambling. So, why is that legal and playing cards for money isn’t?

Even the kids love a bit of gambling, check out some fun-park and you will be seeing droves of children flocked around the prize stalls. For just forty baht a time, they chuck flimsy darts at balloons with the chance of winning a teddy bear. In fact, there is even plenty of this kind of gambling in the land’s temple fairs, just pop along sometime and you may be perplexed at how incredibly popular the Bingo game is. Again, no such prizes in the form of cash, just the latest flat-screen TV sets and bicycles.

Thailand has to accept the fact, that illegal gambling is rampant and embedded within modern Thai society. So, instead of simply sweeping the problem under the carpet and pretending it just doesn’t exist, it ought to be legalized and so controlled, at least to some extent. And finally, can just imagine how much money would reach the state’s coffer in the form of tax, instead of falling into the hands of corrupt law enforcers and local Mafiosi?

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