Singaporeans invoke 'moral authority,' stand firm on youth's caning sentence

April 26, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Writer

SINGAPORE -- A Cabinet-level minister said here yesterday that Singapore would lose "all moral authority" to govern if it granted President Clinton's personal request for mercy toward a U.S. teen-ager sentenced to six lashes with a rattan cane.

"If we are seen buckling in to media pressure or to political pressure from America, then it is no longer possible for us to govern Singapore. We become a joke. It is not possible. We lose all moral authority," George Yong-Boon Yeo, Singapore's information, arts and health minister, said in an interview with The Sun.

The minister called granting clemency to 18-year-old Michael P. Fay of Dayton, Ohio, "politically untenable." Clemency, he said, has never been given here in vandalism cases, such as Mr. Fay's.

Of the prospect of Singapore's rebuffing Mr. Clinton, Mr. Yeo, until January this city-state's second foreign minister, said: "We can be different and still remain good friends and have good relations."

Mr. Yeo stressed that Singapore's Cabinet has not yet made a formal decision on Mr. Clinton's appeal for mercy for Mr. Fay or the teen-ager's own plea for clemency. The Cabinet is expected to meet tomorrow, and it could decide on the caning case then.

But the high-ranking minister's comments -- along with similar remarks by other Singaporean leaders here in recent days -- indicate that they believe this tiny but affluent republic would lose more than it might gain by acceding to the desires of the president of the United States, a particularly close ally.

In a separate interview with The Sun here yesterday, Singapore's founding father, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, refused to add to comments he made last week in Australia on the caning case, saying he's already said enough.

"If they think it's barbaric," Mr. Lee advised Australians critical of caning, "then please don't bring your 17- or 18-year-old son with you to Singapore. And if you do, please warn him of the consequences."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman here declined to respond yesterday to the Singaporeans' remarks.

Mr. Fay's mother, Randy Chan, said yesterday she was "not surprised" by Mr. Yeo's comments. "They have continued from the very beginning to dig in their heels on this case," she said. "But I still won't give up hope."

The teen-ager is serving a four-month jail sentence in a Singapore prison. One of his lawyers, Dominic Nagulendran, said yesterday that Mr. Fay "prays every night, but he is a realist, and I think he is prepared for" the caning.

Mr. Fay was sentenced to six strokes with a rattan cane after pleading guilty last month to two counts of vandalism for spray-painting cars here last fall.

A second U.S. teen-ager, Stephen Freehill, 16, has pleaded not guilty to three charges of spray-painting cars in the company of Mr. Fay and others. If convicted in a trial set to begin next month, he could receive nine or more cane strokes.

Caning, a painful ordeal that results in permanent scars on the buttocks, is considered a form of torture by some human rights and medical groups. It is mandatory punishment for vandalism convictions here; about 1,000 criminals were caned in Singapore last year for a range of offenses, including rape and robbery.

But Mr. Fay's supporters say that Singapore is going out of its way to make an example of him. They allege that vandalism charges usually are not brought in cases involving private property here, so as to avoid caning.

Mr. Yeo denied this yesterday, and he defended caning as essential to maintaining law and order here and, ultimately, to this society's long-term survival.

Because of Singapore's strict approach to crime and punishment, Mr. Yeo said, Singaporeans are able to "to come home, remove their shoes, put on their slippers and feel that it's a cleaner, safer, more secure place than when you are on the outside.

"In the end, we must make our own decisions," he said. "We are old-fashioned in many of our values, perhaps more like [Americans were] in the '50s or in the '40s. I think it's possible that you were a better society then than you are now."

"That is what we think. That's why we've decided to be what we are."

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