Leading Article: Singapore's version of crime and punishment

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The Independent Online
STEP ASIDE Whitewater, Bosnia and even last week's tragic 'friendly fire' blunder in northern Iraq. America's latest obsession is a thick cane of split bamboo called the rattan. Unless a final appeal for clemency is successful, this fearsome instrument, soaked in water and wielded by a practitioner of the martial arts, will soon be inflicting excruciating pain and lasting scars on the bared buttocks of an American teenager named Michael Fay, who is in prison in Singapore for acts of petty vandalism.

On radio chat shows, his plight drowns out every other topic. Not a columnist worth his salt has failed to hold forth on the subject. Entire editions of television news programmes have been made over to it. The New York Times has demanded that US companies with operations in Singapore should intervene on Mr Fay's behalf. President Clinton has described the punishment as 'extreme' and asked Singapore to show clemency.

Beyond reasonable argument, caning as practised by Singapore is a form of torture that ought to be repellent to any Western country. Although a large number of Americans, exasperated by violent crime at home, have welcomed the sentence, a majority oppose it. By a margin of 52 to 38, respondents to a Newsweek magazine poll said the punishment was excessive.

But the motives behind American protests are suspect. It is true that the US has virtually outlawed beatings and floggings as 'cruel and unusual punishment', but its zest for capital punishment is shared only by Iran, China and a handful of other totalitarian regimes. Last week the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure making 65 new crimes punishable by death under federal law. And who was the Arkansas governor who had a mentally deranged black convict named Rickey Ray Rector executed early in his electoral campaign in order to prove he was not soft on crime?

Singapore has been caning its own citizens for years without objection from Washington, which never fails to proclaim that human rights are universal and indivisible. Nor have there been protests from the American companies that find Singapore's quasi-police state a congenial business environment. Let Mr Fay be spared, but let his sparing be a victory for equity and decency, not for American self- righteousness.