Maybe Caning Is What It Takes

March 11, 1994|By ANGELO FIGUEROA

San Jose, California -- The story about the American teen sentenced to be flogged and jailed in Singapore should have outraged me.

It didn't.

For those who may have missed it, Michael P. Fay is an 18-year-old American living with his parents in Singapore. He's a senior at the Singapore-American School. It's costing his parents $10,000 a year to send Mikey to private school. At those prices, he should come out a scholar.

Unfortunately, Mikey decided to go on a graffiti spree with a few classmates, spray-painting 18 cars last fall. He also tossed eggs at cars, switched a few license plates and was in possession of stolen property.

In the U.S.. Mikey probably would have been put on probation for his first offense. Maybe restitution, maybe just a warning. A slap on the wrist.

In Singapore, vandalism and other crimes aren't taken lightly. Last week, Mikey was sentenced to be flogged six times with a rattan cane. He'll also have to spend four months in prison and pay a fine of $2,230.

It's a harsh punishment. Most Americans would say it's cruel and barbaric. They're right. But I just can't get myself to feel indignant.

I got to thinking about the time I stole some Twinkies from the corner store as a kid. The store owner busted me as I was walking out the front door. He sent his clerk to go get my father. A few seconds later my father was in the store. He paid for the Twinkies, slapped me in front of the owner and then took me home for the real spanking. His leather belt left welts on my legs.

Today, he would be arrested for child abuse. The authorities wouldn't care that I survived the spanking and never stole anything again. They wouldn't understand that there is a huge difference between being disciplined and being cruelly beaten. That difference has been blurred in our society, and kids know it.

Not only will some kids today threaten their parents with false charges of child abuse, but many of them also know that the system can't do much to discipline them either. That's why drug dealers use teens as runners, lookouts and even sellers. If you're a minor, crime can pay.

But it isn't right. Kids need to know there's a line that can't be crossed. For too many kids, that line is invisible.

Just ask my neighbor. He paints over the graffiti on the brick wall in his front yard, only to have vandals cover it with their signs again and again. His frustration grows with each new set of markings. Flogging, he said, would put a stop to the seesaw battle.

''It would certainly make kids think twice about spray-painting their damn names on private property,'' he said. ''But please don't put my name or address in the paper. They might come after my garage and cars next.''

Imagine that, a respectable, adult homeowner living in fear of kids. He's not alone. We've lost control of many of our kids. And they scare us.

People in Singapore would shake their heads at our predicament. But they'll go ahead and flog Mikey and toss him in jail, unless he goes free on appeal. Either way, they'll continue enjoying life in one of the safest countries in the world with little or no graffiti.

Maybe they know something we don't know.

Angelo Figueroa is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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