Singapore shrugs off uproar over 'barbaric' flogging

SINGAPORE - Some younger people may have smarted at Thursday's court decision to enforce a caning sentence on a young American vandal, but the man in the street accustomed to Singapore's draconian penalties cannot see what all the fuss is about. 'Maybe six strokes of the cane is too many, but he should receive some strokes,' said an office worker in one of the more sympathetic reactions to the sentence on Michael Peter Fay, 18, who will receive six lashes for spray-painting parked cars.

The High Court rejected his appeal against his sentence of six strokes and four months' jail, imposed after he pleaded guilty last month. The appeal judge said Fay committed at least 16 acts of vandalism over 10 days. Caning is mandatory for vandalism but in the US was seen as so barbaric and unbefitting the crime that President Bill Clinton urged Singapore to reconsider.

Fay's sentence will involve lashes on his bare buttocks with a rattan, a four-foot, half- inch thick bamboo rod wielded by a martial-arts expert. Caning was criticised in a US State Department human rights report last year.

Prisoners who have received the punishment say pieces of skin and flesh fly at each stroke. The maximum number of strokes which can be inflicted is 24. A doctor checks that the convict remains conscious. If the prisoner cannot be revived, the caning is stopped until he is certified as fit for it to continue. Caning has been part of Singapore's British-derived penal code for 120 years. Women are not caned, nor men over 50.

Shree Poon, a political-science lecturer at the National University of Singapore, said upholding the sentence was consistent with a policy of maintaining discipline with which few would disagree. 'I don't think there is any embarrassment at all,' he said. 'It's a question of law, decided by the judges.'

His view echoed that of the pro-government Straits Times. 'Singaporeans have no reason to be defensive about the stringency of the laws they live by and which foreign nationals domiciled here are subject to,' it said in a recent editorial. 'This principle is accepted; it is not negotiable.'

Russell Heng, a researcher with the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, a private think- tank, said official actions in matters of social policy and internal security had occasionally embarrassed him - such as the ban on chewing-gum. 'There are some things I am prepared to live with, including the caning and death sentence,' he said. 'Some things do embarrass me but the Fay case does not . . . The banning on imports of chewing-gum did.'

In 1992 Singapore banned manufacture, sale and import of chewing-gum, with fines of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars ( pounds 4,400) for importing gum and Sdollars 500 for chewing it.

Other laws impose heavy fines for littering, spitting and not flushing public lavatories. There are bans on students wearing shorts and sleeveless T-shirts. Hanging is mandatory for anyone trafficking in more than 15g (half an ounce) of heroin.

Each rule is a piece of social engineering designed to maintain a peaceful and ordered society, analysts say. But debate is growing about the nature of that society, with some younger Singaporeans speaking out against the caning sentence. 'I don't think it is fair,' said Amnah Tan, 27, a saleswoman. 'There is something wrong with him . . . maybe they should give him some psychiatric treatment.'

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