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Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, with 60% of its residents being of this particular religion, and Muslim countries often but not always have pretty strict views of gambling and see it as a sin in almost all circumstances.
So in these countries these religious beliefs often shape the law of the country, especially in the more religious countries that follow Islam. The unique thing about Malaysia though is that they have two sets of laws. One set applies to Muslims in the country, including tourists who are Muslim, and the other set applies to non Muslims. (1)
So we have the religious law and the secular law and there are two separate legal systems that function here, with even their own court systems, which is actually necessary because the secular courts based upon common law aren’t going to be experts on Islamic law.
So people in Malaysia become subject to one or the other sets of laws merely by virtue of their religion. Both prohibit gambling, but the secular law permits it when specifically authorized by law, and the Islamic based law just plain prohibits it and there are no exceptions.
The Islamic code of laws here is definitely broader in scope than the common law based system is, and there are all sorts of things that you can get thrown in jail for that normal laws do not prosecute, and basically people are confined to prison for not complying with religious tenants which govern a wide variety of prohibited behaviors, with gambling only being one of many so called vices that are included. (2)
These religious laws are enacted at the state level officially but they are very similar throughout Malaysia. Infractions will get you both fined and imprisoned and there may be lashings involved as well, although gambling does not involve any lashings.
Different Laws For Different Folks
The secular law on gambling has its own act, the Betting Act of 1953, which has been amended several times as gambling has become more liberalized in this country. (3) Bettors face up to 6 months in jail and operators risk being imprisoned for up to 5 years.
As far as which law applies, all ethnic Malays are required by law to be Sunni Muslims, so it is a distinction that can be made purely on one’s ethnic background, and it is not even a matter of renouncing one’s faith to be subject to the normal laws, as you can be thrown in jail for not practicing the Muslim faith if you are an ethnic Malay, as you are deemed by law to be Muslim.
To cater to the non Muslims and tourists, Malaysia does have a good amount of legal land based gambling, and offer pretty much everything other than sports gambling, which is prohibited. Rumors are that they came close to licensing sports betting a few years ago but the deal fell through at the last minute due to too much political opposition.
It’s not that land based gambling is rampant here by any means, and its growth is kept well in check by a vocal opposition, which is to be expected in a country that does not allow most of its people to partake in gambling at all. They are at least wise enough to realize that the significant part of the population that doesn’t follow the majority religion should not be subject to their religious laws.
There is a single land based casino here, the Resorts World Genting, and although this is in a secluded location in the mountains it is only about an hour’s drive away from Kuala Lampur, a world class city with a metropolitan area of 7.5 million people, and this facility is truly impressive, and the views alone are said to be worth the trip. (4)
Playing Poker in Malaysia
There are no legal land based poker rooms in Malaysia, and poker hasn’t historically been that popular of a game here, but this has improved lately, and more and more Malays are being turned on to poker, but this has happened during the internet era and therefore online poker is the only significant venue for it, but it has served the burgeoning poker market quite well indeed. (5)
There is indeed an underground gambling market here which the police battle to control, and you may be able to find a live poker game within this scene if you know the right people, but most of this underground gambling is focused on sports betting and bookie operations, as this is the one type of gambling that the government of Malaysia doesn’t want at all, so there is a need that isn’t being satisfied. (6)
The casino does offer poker but it’s casino poker, pitting players against the house, which isn’t considered true poker by most. They would probably offer real poker tables if the demand was there but it doesn’t seem to be high enough for this as of yet. There’s nothing particular stopping this though other than live poker not being popular enough yet, as they do permit casino games generally, and live poker is considered a casino game.
The government doesn’t license online gambling like they do land based gambling, at least not as of yet, so players have to play their online poker at foreign based sites, which isn’t a problem to do. Malaysian banks are not allowed to permit payments to gambling sites though, so players have to use alternative means such as internet wallets to move money in and out of poker sites, which isn’t much of a problem either.
Malaysia is one of the countries where access to online poker has been restricted somewhat as of late, which some of the major poker sites have done, and in this case it’s likely that Malaysia is perceived as too much of a grey market.
It’s not that clear what goes into these decisions but there are a lot of Islamic countries on this list in addition to some countries where online poker isn’t real popular and Malaysia fits both, as there isn’t a lot of online poker players from here and losing sites like PokerStars in particular probably won’t do much to change things.
Fortunately though there are some poker sites that will accept Malay players so online poker lives on here, and who knows, maybe it will even catch on more in the coming years.