American teen-ager braces for caning in Singapore

April 20, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

SINGAPORE -- Michael P. Fay is preparing to be lashed with a rattan cane, his mother says, even as the American teen-ager's lawyer delivers a last-ditch plea for clemency.

"We've told him to prepare himself by looking into himself for inner strength, and we believe he's doing that," the 18-year-old's mother, Randy Chan, said yesterday after visiting her son in prison here for the first time.

"He just told me to be strong and to thank everybody for everything they're trying to do," she said.

Mrs. Chan, who emerged from the prison sobbing, said she believes that the chances of today's clemency plea resulting in the Singapore president's overturning Mr. Fay's flogging sentence are "very slim."

"Singapore wants to make an example out of Michael in order to demonstrate their differences with the West," she said of this affluent island's avowed stress on collective -- rather than individual -- rights.

Mrs. Chan returned here Monday night after traveling in the United States for several weeks in an effort to drum up U.S. pressure against the flogging sentence.

She said that "thousands" of signatures from citizens of the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Singapore have been collected on a petition against caning, a petition she intends to present to the Singaporean government.

President Clinton, who has called caning "extreme," also has asked Singaporean leaders to show mercy toward Mr. Fay.

Many Americans, upset over rising crime in their own society, have shown strong support for Singapore's tough stance on crime in general and for the caning punishment in particular. But Mrs. Chan said, "Once people know the whole story, they're against what's happening to Michael."

She maintains that her son was intimidated into confessing while being held by police -- a charge that authorities here deny.

She also claims that he entered into a plea bargain -- pleading guilty to two counts of vandalism for spray-painting cars last fall -- with the understanding that caning would not be part of his sentence.

"We were betrayed," she said, even though each conviction on a vandalism charge here carries a mandatory sentence of a minimum of three cane strokes.

Mr. Clinton was asked about the caning again yesterday during an MTV forum on violence. He said that the four-month sentence Mr. Fay is serving for vandalism is itself "quite severe." He called the caning procedure "much more serious than it sounds," and added, "It's not entirely clear that his confession wasn't coerced from him."

After pleading guilty early last month, Mr. Fay, originally from Dayton, Ohio, received the sentence of four months in jail, a fine of about $2,000 and six strokes with a rattan cane on his bare buttocks. The sentence was upheld on appeal at the end of last month.

Neither Mrs. Chan nor Mr. Fay's lawyer, Dominic Nagulendran, would divulge details of Mr. Fay's plea for a presidential pardon, which the teen-ager signed in prison yesterday and which was to be filed today with the office of Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong.

So far all indications from the Singapore government -- and particularly from its founding father and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew -- are that no mercy will be shown Mr. Fay.

But the plea for a pardon does pose a diplomatic dilemma for Singapore.

"Singapore's counting that this won't do permanent damage to the relationship," a Western diplomat here said, referring to the city-state's strong ties with the United States.

It can count on a lot. The United States is the tiny island's largest overseas market, with two-way trade almost totaling $30 billion.

Mrs. Chan said she expects Mr. Ong to act on the plea within the next two to three weeks, after consulting his Cabinet.

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