Claws of the Tiger

April 21, 1994

Americans who condemn Singapore's sentence of a U.S. youth to caning for vandalism, like those who praise it, should be aware it is part of a whole fabric of difference between that society and ours.

Caning for vandalism was instituted in 1966, to suppress political graffiti. Importing drugs brings execution. There is no crime to speak of, no chewing gum on the subway, no rudeness, no real political opposition or open criticism. This is a far cry from contemporary America, but U.S. families who live there have to comply with the authoritarian laws that make Singapore safe though regimented.

Other countries may draw on tradition. Lee Kuan Yew invented modern Singapore, then perfected it. The island state was formerly the great port and naval base of British Malaya, manned by industrious overseas Chinese. Lee Kuan Yew was a left-wing barrister agitating against British rule.

He was the first prime minister of the autonomous city-state in 1959, initially under British rule and then as part of federal Malaysia. Singapore won independence (or was expelled) from Malaysia in 1965, on ethnic incompatibility. Mr. Lee formed his unique society out of overseas Chinese people, English language and institutions, and his clear perception of world trade opportunities and Cold War perils. He has lately promoted the Confucian tradition as a means to combat individualism.

Like Deng Xiaoping of China, Mr. Lee stepped down from power in theory but is still credited with monopolizing it. Like Kim Il Sung of North Korea, he has tried to maneuver his son into dynastic succession. Unlike either, he is only 70.

Under a regimented society, powerful work ethnic, free RTC enterprise and foreign investment, Singapore is a tiger of economic achievement. Its prosperous people are grateful. It has always sought U.S. influence, to counter China, and supported U.S. policy. It conducts joint maneuvers with U.S. forces, welcomes the U.S. Navy for lucrative repair and maintenance work and cultivates the U.S. as its largest trading partner.

Singapore actively solicits good opinion from Americans, yet banned the Asian Wall Street Journal for criticism. It is torn between appeasing President Clinton's request for clemency so as to maintain good relations and refusing to back down for fear of losing public respect. Grieve for young Mr. Fay. He provides a crisis in Singapore-U.S. relations that nobody wanted.

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