The Minister for Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng, said Singapore needed no outside help to run its justice system. ''It is absurd that societies so stricken with crime should attempt to apply their standards on us and teach us what to do,' he said.
Mr Wong, speaking at the opening of a women's prison, was referring to the cases of Michael Fay, 18, an American sentenced last month to six strokes with a rattan cane and four months in jail, and a Hong Kong student, Shiu Chi Ho, 17, sentenced on Thursday to 12 strokes and eight months in jail for spray-painting cars.
President Bill Clinton has called the caning sentence extreme, and last week made his third appeal to Singapore's President, Ong Teng Cheong, for clemency for Fay.
The severity of Thursday's sentence startled lawyers and diplomats who have followed the case.
Shiu's lawyer pointed to a local press report of a similar case of spray-painting a car by Singaporean youths. That incident was defined as a crime of mischief, which does not carry a mandatory sentence of caning. 'You can see a double standard is at work,' one lawyer said. 'The decision has been made that Michael Fay and the other foreign kids are going to be used as scapegoats to prove the decadence of Westerners and other outsiders.'
Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, which usually reflects the official view, took umbrage at similar comments by American columnists describing the youths as 'political victims', and turning the case into a human rights cause celebre. 'If someone sentenced to something, anywhere in the world, becomes a political figure because Americans do not like the particular sentence, human rights fatigue cannot but set in at some point,' wrote Asad Latif, a senior Straits Times columnist.
Before October 1990, Shiu could have faced similar punishment in Hong Kong, where men and boys as young as 13 were flogged for crimes ranging from carrying a knife to drug possession, robbery and assault.
Pressure from the United Nations Human Rights Committee caused Hong Kong to outlaw flogging. When Britain reported to the committee on Hong Kong in late 1988, as it was required to do under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it was grilled about the use of flogging, and told to report back within a year, instead of the usual five years.
Announcing its decision to end flogging, the colonial government described it as 'no longer acceptable in today's society'. It added that a review of alternative punishments had shown that 'other measures would achieve a better rehabilitative effect, and that flogging was contrary to the covenant on civil and political rights'.
Statistics suggest that flogging had little effect as a deterrent. Reported cases of possession of offensive weapons fell from 1,024 in 199O, when the law was repealed, to 779 in 1993, while reports of burglaries dropped from 12,696 in 1990 to 10,852 in 1993.
Between 1985 and 1990, corporal punishment was ordered by Hong Kong's courts on 42 occasions, the final one in August 1990 when a 16-year-old illegal immigrant boy was flogged. The punishment was introduced in the mid-1960s during China's Cultural Revolution, when riots brought chaos.
A man who received 12 strokes of the rattan cane recently told a local newspaper that he would not want the punishment inflicted on 'anyone else, not for anything in the world'. He said he had been deprived of food before the flogging because some victims lost control of their bowels. He had to sleep prone for three weeks, and had been unable to sit on the toilet for a month.
The British Government has said that it will not ask Singapore to cancel Shiu's caning until all legal avenues have been exhausted, although Chris Patten, Hong Kong's Governor, has said he may appeal to Singapore for clemency for Shiu.
The British High Commission last month asked Singapore to waive the caning of another British national, Emmanuel Yankson, 24, sentenced to three strokes for overstaying his visa by three years.
In another case of a British subject facing corporal punishment, the Foreign Office has confirmed that British, French and German ambassadors have met Qatar's Foreign Minister to ask for leniency in the case of Gavin Sherrard-Smith.
He has been sentenced in Qatar to 50 strokes of the cane on the soles of the feet for selling alcohol to a Muslim. The Foreign Office said the appeal was made to illustrate European Union concern for the human rights of its citizens.
Real Life, page 23