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OCTOBER 27, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 42 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Assault on Arcades
Malaysia's ban on videogame establishments is misguided

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When Malaysian authorities recently proposed closing the country's thousands of videogame arcades, cartoonists sharpened their satirical pencils and went to work. Asiawide, of course, such arcades are popular meeting points for youth. They may not be the healthiest or most productive outlets for teenage boredom, but neither are they particularly damaging to moral fiber. Malaysian officials, though, worry that many arcades harbor games where players can gamble illegally on horse-racing or cards. Students are being tempted, they fret. So police stepped up raids on arcades, carting away machines and shutting down operators. What next, wondered the satirists? One depicted an irate operator standing by as police removed his machines. Grinning at the hapless merchant was a street vendor of pirated VCDs and the owner of a cybercafE (where customers can gamble online). "Don't laugh," yells the arcade man. "What goes around, comes around."

Well, no one is laughing now. Denouncing arcades as "modern-day opium dens where the young go to satisfy their addiction to videogames," Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has given all operators, licensed or unlicensed, two months to close — for good. The move is not only unwise but will likely be ineffective, as it fails to address the roots of the problem.

Political factors helped trigger the ban. One was support from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a partner in the ruling coalition. Since gambling is proscribed by Islam, non-Malays have been seen as the main betting culprits. Indeed, most arcades are owned by Chinese. MCA backing means the ban on arcades cannot be construed as unfair targeting of one ethnic group. And among Malays, the move bolsters the bid by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's United Malays National Organization to reclaim the moral high ground from the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia. The PM himself has long railed against gambling and many forms of youth entertainment, believing they encourage social ills.

The number of illegal gambling machines in Malaysia is undoubtedly on the rise. But video arcades are by no means the only places where they can be found. Snooker centers have them, as do karaoke parlors, bars, discos and even humble village coffeeshops. The real problem is inadequate law enforcement. If police simply shut down illegal arcades and ensured that legal establishments fulfilled the conditions of their licenses, the problem would largely disappear. An all-out ban merely sends illicit operators underground, making them even harder to police.

Such realities have not dampened the shrill anti-arcade rhetoric. According to the MCA, police are involved in protecting the illegal arcades. The critics have also alleged that the games parlors are drug-dealing centers and recruiting areas for organized crime. If true, a ban only means that these activities, as with illegal gambling machines, will quickly find other "homes." Besides, where will the kids who now frequent arcades go? Probably to cybercafEs, where they can play games and gamble online to their hearts' content. The Internet offers a wide variety of gaming choices — from two-bit slot machines to fully equipped virtual casinos where the stakes go as high as your credit card can bear. Will Malaysia, with its digital-economy dreams, ban them too?

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