U.S. teen faces flogging in 'uptight' Singapore

March 21, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Michael Fay. At the moment, his name might be unfamiliar, but I doubt if anyone has a greater potential to arouse heated emotions, headstrong opinions and emotional talk-show babble.

Before long, it will happen.

Fay, 18, is an American who lives in Singapore because that is where his mother and stepfather work for an American company. For those who flunked geography, Singapore is a city-state in the Far East. It has been described as looking like a prosperous California suburb.

It is prosperous, industrious and a reporter friend who has been there says it is the most uptight place she's ever been.

There are strict laws forbidding just about everything. Drop a gum wrapper, and you might go to jail. Spit on a sidewalk, the same thing.

And mean stuff? Drug dealers are strung up by the neck until dead.

It is a serious, law-and-order society.

Which brings us to Michael Fay, American teen-ager in Singapore.

He was arrested as one of a group of rowdies who spray-painted and threw eggs at dozens of cars, switched license plates, tore down traffic signs and committed other silly acts.

We know what would happen to him in most big cities in the United States. He would go before a judge, whose schedule includes rapists, gunmen and killers, and work out a plea bargain.

Chances are he would get probation, a fine and maybe his parents would have to pay for the damage he did. If the judge had spare energy, he might throw in a lecture on unseemly behavior. And if the judge were in a hard-nosed mode, he might even order a few hours of community service.

But young Fay was in Singapore, where they view mischief differently.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in prison, fined more than $2,000 and will be flogged.

Flogged? Yes. In Singapore, wrongdoers can be flogged.

It is not a simple spanking. In Singapore, they believe in scar-tissue flogging.

A professional flogger swats the victim on the buttocks with a length of half-inch bamboo. The end of the bamboo lash is kept wet so that it doesn't fragment or shatter.

Now, six swats on the butt might not sound like much. Most of us have been spanked by hand or belt.

But the official Singapore swats are delivered by a martial-arts expert who can generate that which golfers call "club-head speed."

It more than hurts. Some flog recipients go into shock. And the welts are so severe that they become lifelong scars.

So the potential damage to young Fay's rear end has become an international dispute that has involved President Clinton.

Fay's father, who lives in Dayton (his parents are divorced), has a letter from him saying that the Singapore cops bullied him into confessing. Which is not unthinkable. In Singapore, they don't have to book you quickly; you are not entitled to a lawyer when you are questioned; and, for all anyone knows, the cops can bat you from one corner of your cell to another until you say the right things.

When Fay's misfortune was called to his attention, Clinton called the punishment "extreme" and said he was making a "strong protest" to the government of Singapore.

Singapore responded by saying, in effect, that Clinton should mind his own business; they know how to handle rowdies.

This put Clinton in a delicate position because we do a lot of business with Singapore.

But if young Fay is flogged, it will be on CNN and all of the other media-hysteric outlets. And how will it look if an American teen-ager is rendered unable to sit down, a teen-ager's favorite position?

It is a tough call.

On the one hand, it can be argued that if you live in a foreign land, you should be aware of the local laws and make sure you don't screw up. But should an otherwise nice kid have his bottom scarred for something that would be a misdemeanor in this country?

Young Fay, by the way, is in a hospital, suffering from depression.

Wouldn't you?

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