'Joe Public' backs caning of American

AMERICANS ARE watching with increasing fascination the plight of Michael Fay, their 18-year-old countryman who has been sentenced in Singapore to six lashes of the cane for vandalising cars with spray- paint and eggs. And many, rather than rallying to the youth, seem to consider the punishment perfectly fitting, writes David Usborne.

The unexpected public reaction in letters to newspapers and calls to radio stations, tells as much about how Americans view their society - increasingly ridden by crime - as they do Singapore. One recent poll suggested that 53 per cent of voters would support corporal punishment, a view at odds with the official response so far from Washington to the Fay case. Indeed, a fair-sized diplomatic rumpus is being stirred by the case, with President Bill Clinton having added his own voice to calls for clemency.

But Singapore, America's 11th most important trading partner, is apparently unmoved. Fay was arrested last October and confessed - under pressure, he now claims - to defacing the cars. A month ago, he received a sentence that President Clinton publicly called 'extreme': four months in prison, a fine of dollars 2,230 ( pounds 1,490), and six strokes on the buttocks with a four-foot, half- inch-thick rattan cane. He lost his appeal on Thursday.

The caning is not a blotting-paper-down-the-trousers affair. The offender is tied to a wooden, easel-type frame. The buttocks are then bared, although soft material is attached immediately above to protect against damage to the spine and internal organs. The cane will have been soaked overnight in water and antiseptic to prevent splitting and the introduction of infection. It will be wielded by a prison official trained in martial arts.

'On the very first stroke of the cane, the skin is split,' Fay's mother, Randy Chan, explained to viewers of the ABC programme, Primetime Live. 'By the second stroke, the buttocks are totally bloodied.' Mrs Chan, weeping before the cameras, could have said more. Others familiar with the punishment say the victims often pass out early on, and are revived by a doctor before the next strokes are administered.

Lawyers for Fay attempted to depict a troubled childhood. Fay, whose parents divorced when he was seven, lives with his father in Dayton, Ohio, but was visiting his mother and stepfather in Singapore when he crossed the nation-city's famously unbending authorities. In rejecting the appeal, Chief Justice Yong Pung How retorted that Fay had committed acts of vandalism 'relentlessly and wilfully over a period of 10 days'.

Meanwhile, Washington is sustaining its diplomatic pressure. 'We regret the appeal court's decision,' a spokesman for the State Department said on Thursday. 'We continue to believe that caning is an excessive penalty for a youthful, non- violent offender who pleaded guilty.' Caning, introduced to Singapore by colonial Britain, is outlawed under international human rights conventions.

In their letters and calls, however, many Americans betray almost an envy for the system in Singapore. With America so overwhelmed by crime, such a reaction is not surprising. On what grounds, after all, can the US lecture others on crime prevention?

Mike Royko, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, reported receipt of a 'stack of letters several inches high' - 99 per cent of them in support of Singapore's sentence. This, for instance, from Claude Waife, of South Bend, Indiana: 'That American punk is getting exactly what he deserves. If we had similar laws, I'm sure our streets wouldn't be under control of the thugs and slugs.' And from Tom Lavin, of Niles, Illinois: 'I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that this guy never does it again. We should do it in this country.'

The Singapore embassy in Washington, and even Tony Hall, the congressman from Dayton who is trying to gather support for Fay's cause, say they are receiving a flood of letters, mostly in the same vein. This cannot be helping Fay, whose slim, hope of escape from the cane now is last- minute clemency from the President of Singapore, Ong Teng Cheong. No date has been set for the caning, but neither has there been any word from the presidential compound.

(Photograph omitted)

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