In 1994, a mini diplomatic crisis erupted between Singapore and the United States.
An 18-year-old American teenager, Michael Peter Fay, was to spend four months in jail, slapped with a S$3,500 fine, and given six strokes of the cane -- all for vandalising cars and stealing road signs in the city-state of Singapore.
US media launched influence campaign
Fay's case seized the public's attention and imagination, as interest and reporting hit fever pitch.
It triggered a media backlash in the US, with the American president intervening on the teenager's behalf.
With the benefit of hindsight, more than two decades after the event, it has become relatively clear what came to pass: The mighty US media machinery was engaged in an influence campaign to coerce Singapore into becoming more lenient with Fay.
About the Michael Fay case
In October 1993, a spate of vandalism and stolen state property occurred throughout Singapore.
Police investigations led them to the Singapore American School where Fay was arrested as the suspect within the same month.
In total, he was charged with 53 charges: 45 counts of vandalism, six counts of mischief, one count of retaining stolen items, and one count of possessing firecrackers.
A plea bargain managed to reduce Fay's 53 charges to just five: Two counts of vandalism, two counts of mischief, and one count of possessing stolen property.
Fay pleaded guilty on Feb. 28, 1994 and was sentenced on March 3 to:
- Four months' jail and six strokes of the cane (for the vandalism charges)
- S$3,500 fine (for the counts of mischief and stolen property)
Appealed but failed
Fay tried to appeal against the sentence on March 31, 1994 in High Court but failed.
On the very same day, he started serving his sentence.
From the time of the vandalism to the time of serving his sentence was only five months.
But it was in this span of time that the sound and fury of the US media was the loudest.
Backlash by American media
The backlash stemmed in part from Fay being the first Caucasian to be sentenced to caning in Singapore.
This further reinforced the Disneyland with the Death Penalty stereotype made famous by American writer William Gibson in 1993.
The American media took umbrage at the fact that Singapore dared to inflict a "barbaric" punishment -- one that the US outlawed 22 years ago.
Newsweek ("Justice in Six Lashes?" and "Six Lashes in Singapore") painted a shocking picture of caning as a blatant human-rights abuse and described in detail how "skin and flesh fly at each stroke" administered by a "martial arts expert".
So flagrantly heinous that Fay's father and American media compared it to Nazi treatment of Jews.
While Fay was awaiting his caning sentence, American media reported that he was hospitalised for depression and how caning would damage Fay's self esteem because of his pre-existing Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Other media outlets such as National Public Radio ran the narrative of Singapore as a draconian authoritative and oppressive regime by pointing out that caning for vandalism was originally a tool to suppress political dissidents.
They did this by inviting ex-Solicitor-General and political exile Francis Seow on a talk show to discuss the the issue and provide an insider opinion on the matter.
In the same vein portraying the Singapore government as an authoritative, manipulative regime, the Washington Post accused the Singapore government of police brutality and legal-manoeuvring just to force a confession from Fay, in a move they called a "miscarriage of justice".
The Chicago Tribune argued that Fay was merely an unwitting pawn caught in the ideological war between the liberal West and moralistic East, famously calling then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew an "aging dictator" in a "fascist city state".
Extrapolating this narrative of ideological difference to absurd ends was a column by the Washington Post opining that Singapore's flagrant disregard of international standards for human rights stems from the majority "ethnic Chinese citizens'... disdain for non-Han cultures".
Throughout the sentencing, the media continually called for American businesses to put pressure on Singapore by pulling out.
Interestingly, post-caning, Fay likened his caning to that of a bloody nose and "less horrific than accounts of caning in the past".
Sought presidential pardon
With the appeal lost, Fay's hopes of escaping the cane boiled down to a clemency plea to then president Ong Teng Cheong.
In April, American president Bill Clinton even requested for President Ong to commute the caning sentence. In the same month, Fay petitioned for President Ong to grant clemency.
Singapore reduced caning by two strokes
President Ong did not grant clemency, but the Singapore government eventually reduced the number of strokes from six to four, in view of President Clinton's plea.
Fay was administered four strokes of the cane on May 5, 1994.
Fay was granted early release on June 21 due to good behaviour. He served a total of 83 days. He left Singapore for the US the next day.
Singapore public's stand
The Singapore public voiced support for Fay's caning.
Locals were observed to close ranks and rally behind the government and Singapore's justice system in light of the unfavourable media coverage by the US media.
The matter took on a tone of Singapore upholding its sovereignty and exercising its rights in the face of backlash.
American public supportive
Ironically, while American media continued their crusade against caning, most of the American public were supportive of Fay's caning.
The Chicago Tribune reported receiving letters "several inches high" that were mostly supportive of the caning.
American polls also placed about half of Americans in favour of corporal punishment.
Then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew weighed in on the matter during a television interview:
"The American society is the richest and most prosperous in the world, but it is hardly safe and peaceful. If you like it that way, that is your problem. But that is not the path we choose. They always talk about human rights. I think it is just a convenient slogan."
Top image via MercuryNews.com