Malaysia tycoon pledges millions to charity to curb Muslim criticism of sports betting launch

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Malaysia tycoon in betting spat makes charity vow

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A Malaysian billionaire embroiled in a controversy over launching a sports betting operation has pledged to donate his initial earnings to charity in a bid to deflect growing criticism that the plan will promote gambling in the Muslim-majority country.

Ascot Sports, a company linked to business tycoon Vincent Tan, announced last month it had received the government’s approval to offer betting services for football and other international sports starting August or September.

The government has defended the move, saying it could gain up to $1.2 billion in tax revenues while curbing rampant illegal gambling.

The betting service will not be open to Muslims, who account for nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s population, but it has sparked protests by opposition parties and Muslim organizations that fear it will encourage people to gamble.

Tan said late Saturday that 525 million ringgit ($160 million) — which he is earning from the sale of Ascot to his own conglomerate ahead of the service launch — will be donated to his own foundation that provides scholarships and interest-free loans to poor students.

Tan, who is non-Muslim, pledged the foundation’s accounts will be independently audited and made public.

“I have a dream that I can help to make Malaysia a better place,” he said. “Though the money is donated by me, I want it to be transparent, so that people can see what it does.”

However, the People’s Anti-Gambling Movement, a coalition of Muslim groups, accused Tan of being insincere and claimed he stands to earn much more money in the years ahead from the betting services.

“Money linked to gambling will never bring happiness to people’s lives,” it said in a statement.

Non-Muslim minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, are currently allowed only to purchase lottery tickets and bet on horse races. However, officials estimate illegal sports betting in Malaysia now totals about $6 billion every year, with football betting accounting for about 90 percent.

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