Mother publicizes case to prevent Singapore caning

April 24, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

SINGAPORE -- In her 21st-story apartment -- with its shiny marble floors, its blue Chinese porcelain and its spectacular view of the tropical forests of this unique city -- Randy Chan's seemingly cushy expatriate life here has become a nightmare.

And the 46-year-old St. Louis native is welcoming the hot glare of the U.S. news media into her luxury high-rise so that everyone back home will know almost every sad detail.

That she is subjecting herself to this daily intrusion -- and handling it with remarkable aplomb -- testifies to a mother's determination to save her only child's skin.

Mrs. Chan's son, Michael P. Fay, is the 18-year-old American recently sentenced here for spray-painting cars to receive six lashes of a rattan cane across his bare buttocks, a painful ordeal that will leave permanent scars.

Mr. Fay is serving a four-month jail sentence in a single cell at Singapore's Queenstown Remand Prison, where he awaits the outcome of a plea for clemency to this island republic's %o president.

A few minutes' drive away in the Chan family's apartment, Mrs. Chan cannot bring herself to wait quietly. For the past month, she has waged a desperate campaign to bring international pressure on Singapore to spare the cane.

After her return here six days ago from a quick U.S. tour, she has been the focus of a media frenzy -- giving about two dozen interviews and appearing on so many U.S. television shows that she can't list them all.

"I'm doing it for Michael," she said at her home yesterday. "If there's anyone who can help, I want them to know about our story."

Mrs. Chan believes that her son is innocent and has been targeted by the Singapore government to send a message about law and order to everyone who lives here.

A dozen Singaporeans and two foreigners, between the ages of 18 and 21, have been caned here for vandalism since 1989, but Mr. Fay's supporters say all these cases involved public property. They say he'd be the first caned for vandalizing private property.

"I think that we should be treated equally," Mrs. Chan said. "That's what this is all about."

But so far, her tactic of raising a ruckus hasn't worked.

It has prompted President Clinton, who has said several times that caning is too extreme, to send Singaporean leaders a personal request to show mercy to Mr. Fay. But the president's exhortations seem to have stiffened Singapore's spine.

"Some in the American media have gone so far as to equate caning to torture," Wong Kan Seng, Singapore's home affairs minister, said yesterday in a speech. "It is absurd that societies so stricken with crime should attempt to apply their standards on us and teach us what to do. . . .

"We uphold the ideal that all are equal before the law, regardless of whether they are Singaporeans or foreigners, rich or poor."

These hard-line comments came two days after a 16-year-old from Hong Kong was sentenced here to 12 strokes of the cane for spray-painting cars in the company of Mr. Fay.

All this appears to be bad news for the American as he waits for Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong's decision on his plea for clemency, a decision that could come this week. If the plea is rejected, Mr. Fay could be caned soon after.

But Mrs. Chan said she would continue to speak out in an effort to stop his caning. "This is my son," she said. "I will not lose hope until it actually happens."

She and her second husband of nine years, Marco Chan, a Federal Express executive here, learned last fall that staying silent likely wouldn't accomplish much, either.

After the teen-ager had been held by Singapore police for nine VTC days -- during which, he says, he was coerced into confessing -- the Chans tried to keep quiet about the case.

"We didn't say a word," Mrs. Chan says. "We were told by Singaporean friends, the U.S. Embassy and our attorney that it would be best to let the whole thing die down, and we'd be treated fairly. They said if we made a big deal about it, the government would dig in its heels and there would be problems."

But Mrs. Chan soon came to regret this as her son's case began to take on Kafkaesque turns.

It takes Mrs. Chan about an hour and half to explain calmly and in a by-now well-practiced way how, in her view, Mr. Fay's case progressively "went out of control."

The last straw in the complex chain of events is the family's belief that a plea-bargain arrangement with prosecutors would result in a jail term and a fine, but no caning.

This deal never was outlined in writing, she admits.

In official news releases last week, the Singapore government took pains to deny the Chans' claims that Mr. Fay was abused during his nine-day interrogation, that he was coerced into confessing and that there was an agreement to avoid caning.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Chan believes the whole case has been "a setup," one ultimately directed by Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister for 31 years and who still calls many of the shots here as senior minister.

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