But Singapore may sully reputation

'KIASU' SOCIETY SEEKS TO SAVE FACE

April 17, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — Because of an editing error, Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew was incorrectly identified in Sunday's editions of The Sun. Mr. Lee left office as prime minister in 1990 and took the title of senior minister.

The Sun regrets the errors.

SINGAPORE -- The caning faced by 18-year-old Michael Fay is no mere spanking.

He'd be stripped, bent over a padded trestle at the hip, tied down at his ankles and wrists, and lashed six times by a martial arts specialist with a 4-foot-long, half-inch-wide stick of moistened rattan, say those who have witnessed such ordeals.

Each stroke delivered across the upper portion of his bare buttocks would split his skin. After several, his backside likely would be covered in blood. The pain could cause him to pass out or go into shock.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

For perhaps weeks afterward, he'd have to lie on his belly while his wounds heal.

"It is not a nice thing," says a retired prison officer who supervised canings for 20 years here. "I would think that six strokes would have a very severe effect on a young mind."

Adds a Singapore doctor who has seen the uneven but substantial scars left by canings: "The psychological scars are greater than the physical ones. They don't forget it."

While even some Singaporeans disagree with caning for Mr. Fay's admitted offense of spray painting cars, few here doubt it's a crime deterrent.

As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said last week while traveling in New Zealand: "The punishment is not fatal. It is not painless. It does what it is supposed to do, to remind the wrongdoer that he should never do it again. And it does work."

Mr. Lee is fond of noting that Singapore inherited caning from its British colonizers.

But in 1966 -- long after this city-state achieved self-rule -- his People's Action Party made three strokes with a rattan cane the mandatory punishment on vandalism convictions. The reason: To keep its opponents from writing political slogans on walls.

Caning also is mandatory here for other offenses, including rape, robbery, extortion and being or employing an illegal immigrant. In all, about 1,000 people are caned here annually for various offenses. Canings are not public.

The American teen-ager now sits in a single cell in Singapore's Queenstown Prison, serving a four-month sentence that, if he behaves, will end about four weeks early on June 21.

Before that, though, he awaits the outcome of a plea for clemency to Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong, which will be filed this week by his lawyers. They have until Wednesday.

If President Ong denies that plea, Mr. Fay could be caned immediately, joining 12 Singaporeans and two other foreigners between ages 18 and 21 who have been caned for vandalism since 1989.

"Keep praying for me," Mr. Fay told Americans through his lawyer, Dominic Nagulendran, last week. "I love everyone, and I'm keeping strong inside and outside my body."

President Clinton has asked Singapore to show mercy toward Mr. Fay, and he expressed hope last week that former President George Bush might try to help while visiting here to make a speech.

Friday, Mr. Bush called caning "brutal," but he slammed Mr. Clinton for publicly pressuring Singapore leaders instead of using "quiet diplomacy."

But few expect clemency to be granted. "This is a 'kiasu' society," one Western diplomat says. "That means a fear of losing out. If they backed down, they would feel like they've lost out in their people's eyes."

Going ahead with the caning, however, carries a price for Singapore, because it would be done in defiance of a direct request for mercy from the U.S. president -- defiance that could tarnish long-standing strong bilateral ties.

"Singapore's going to be remembered for one thing and one thing only in Washington," the Western diplomat says. As the American Chamber of Commerce, representing 500 U.S. firms here, put it last month: "It is likely to cast a cloud over Singapore's international reputation."

And the controversy may not end with Mr. Fay's case. Eight other foreign teens were rounded up with Mr. Fay. One of them, Stephen Freehill, 16, also from the United States, faces a similar fate as a result of vandalism charges against him. His trial is expected to begin at the end of this month.

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