Michael Fay

Michael Peter Fay (b. 30 May 1975, St. Louis, Missouri, United States–),1 then an American teenager living in Singapore, stirred up a media storm after he was sentenced to six strokes of the cane in March 1994 for vandalising 18 cars over a ten-day period in September 1993.2 His case attracted a lot of international attention, particularly in the United States, and even then US President Bill Clinton intervened to try and save Fay from caning as he considered it too harsh a punishment. The episode quickly escalated into a diplomatic crisis and contributed to strained Singapore-US relations over the next few years.3

Background
Fay, who had been living in Singapore since 1992, was arrested and charged in early October 1993 for possession of stolen items, including Singapore state flags, road signs and various signboards.Later that month, he was also charged with vandalising a number of cars and committing several acts of mischief, such as spray-painting the cars and throwing eggs at some of them.In total, he was charged with 45 counts of vandalism, 6 counts of mischief, 1 count of retaining stolen items and 1 count of possessing firecrackers – 53 charges in all.6

On 28 February 1994, Fay pleaded guilty in the district court to two counts of vandalism, two counts of mischief and one count of possessing stolen property. Besides these 5 charges, 16 other counts of vandalism and 4 other counts of mischief were also taken into consideration.7 On 3 March, Fay was sentenced to four months' jail and six strokes of the cane for the two vandalism charges, and fined S$3,500 for the other three.8 He was acquitted of the remaining 28 charges.9

Fay's appeal against his jail sentence and caning was heard in the high court on 31 March 1994.10 It was, however, dismissed by then Chief Justice Yong Pung How, and Fay began serving his four-month jail term that day.11 On 20 April, he petitioned to then President of Singapore Ong Teng Cheong for clemency.12 Earlier that month, Clinton had also asked Ong to grant Fay clemency by commuting the caning sentence.13

On 4 May, the government announced that the number of cane strokes would be reduced from six to four out of consideration for Clinton as it valued Singapore's good relations with the US. Fay was caned on 5 May 1994.14 After spending 83 days in jail, he was released early on 21 June on grounds of good behaviour, and left Singapore for the US the next day.15

The controversy
Fay's case was widely covered in the media, especially in the US, but the controversy it generated was not so much about his conviction as it was about the caning sentence he received.16 Critics launched scathing attacks on Singapore for what they considered an archaic and barbaric act of torture, giving horrifying and often exaggerated descriptions of the punishment to support their objection, such as blood running down Fay’s legs during the caning, and that Fay was unable to talk after his caning.17 Some turned the issue into one of Singapore asserting Asian or Chinese values towards "western decadence", and some even portrayed Fay as a victim of human rights abuse.18 However, Singapore also found supporters among the foreign media and, to the surprise of many, the American public. The support stemmed largely from an appreciation of Singapore's low-crime environment, and a belief that this was made possible by its strict laws.19 Some, including a number of US legislators, even suggested that the US learn from Singapore and adopt the caning sentence.20


Despite the widespread support for Singapore among the American public, the US government repeatedly expressed its objection to Singapore's decision to cane Fay.21 Clinton's personal interest in the case as well as open disapproval of the caning sentence contributed to the issue’s escalating into a diplomatic crisis.22 On 3 March 1994, the day the sentence was passed, then US Embassy Chargé d'Affaires Ralph Boyce said the punishment was too severe for the offence.23

During a press conference held in Washington on 7 March 1994, Clinton called the punishment extreme, and urged the Singapore government to reconsider the sentence.24 Following the dismissal of Fay’s appeal on 31 March, Boyce again criticised the decision, and 24 US senators signed and sent a letter to Ong requesting presidential clemency for Fay.25 Clinton also wrote to Ong on 5 April asking for the caning sentence to be commuted, and he continued to voice his concerns publicly while his request was being considered.26

The Singapore government defended the sentence and the country’s right to uphold its own laws, especially in the face of unfavourable media coverage in the US.27 On 3 March, in response to Boyce's comments on Fay’s sentence, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that it was Singapore's tough laws that kept the country orderly and relatively crime-free, unlike “in cities like New York, where even police cars are not spared the acts of vandals”.28 Various Singaporean ministers also spoke publicly about the case throughout the episode.29 In April, during a local television programme, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that the US was neither safe nor peaceful because it did not dare to restrain or punish those who did wrong, adding, “If you like it this way, that is your problem. But, that is not the path we choose”.30

While the Singapore government dealt with harsh criticisms from abroad, Singaporeans were quick to support and rally behind their government. The negative reporting by the foreign media and political pressures only served to strengthen their support. To them, the case became an issue of preserving their nation's sovereignty. Thus, many were disappointed and some even angry, when the government reduced Fay's caning sentence. While some described the decision as “shrewd” and “clever”, others called it “wimpish” and “cowardly”.31

"Case closed"
Although the reduction of Fay's caning sentence did not fully satisfy the US government, it did help to ease tensions. On 5 May 1994, after the caning had been carried out, then US Vice President Al Gore said that although the US government was disappointed, it would move on from the incident.32 Two days later, Singapore’s then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that the matter was closed as far as the Singapore government was concerned.33


Despite Gore’s statement, the controversy continued in the US with exaggerated accounts of Fay’s condition after the caning, and his subsequent claims of innocence and police torture helped sustain media interest.34 Nonetheless, relations between Singapore and the US eventually returned to normal, albeit after several years.35



Author

Valerie Chew



References
1. Gopal Baratham, The Caning of Michael Fay (Singapore: KRP Publications, 1994), 7. (Call no. RSING 364.164 GOP)

2. Ministry of Home Affairs, “High Court Judgement on Appeal By Michael Fay” press release, 31 March 1994 (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 103-1994-03-31); Elena Chong, “Teen Vandal Gets Jail and Cane,” Straits Times, 4 March 1994, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Gretchen Liu, The Singapore Foreign Service: The First 40 Years (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2005), 192–93. (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LIU)
4. Dominic Nathan, “Prison Refutes 'Wild Allegations' Made by Fay's Father and Lawyer,” Straits Times, 8 May 1994, 3; “American Teenager Charged with Keeping Stolen Goods,” Straits Times, 9 October 1993, 1; “Vandalism Case: American Teen Faces More than 40 Charges,” Straits Times, 15 October 1993, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Baratham, Caning of Michael Fay, 12.
5. “Vandalism Case.”
6. Ministry of Home Affairs, “High Court Judgement on Appeal By Michael Fay”; “Vandalism Case”; Zuraidah Ibrahim and Chiang Yin Pheng, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?Straits Times, 7 May 1994, 32 (From NewspaperSG); Baratham, Caning of Michael Fay, 20.
7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Comments by MFA Spokesman,” press release, 8 March 1994 (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 120-1994-03-08); “Two Foreign Students Admit Vandalism, Mischief,” Straits Times, 1 March 1994, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Chong, “Teen Vandal Gets Jail and Cane”; “Fay's Caning: Clinton Makes Plea to S'pore,” Straits Times, 10 April 1994, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Baratham, Caning of Michael Fay, 22.
9. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Comments by MFA spokesman”; Chong, “Teen Vandal Gets Jail and Cane.”
10. “Fay's Caning”; Asad Latif, The Flogging of Singapore: The Michael Fay Affair (Singapore: Times Books International, 1994), 59. (Call no. RSING 364.6095957 ASA)
11. “Fay's Caning”; M. Nirmala, “Fay Leaves Jail and Says: I'm Looking Forward to the Future,” Straits Times, 22 June 1994, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Politically Untenable to Grant Clemency to Fay: BG Yeo,” Straits Times, 27 April 1994, 3; “Fay's Lawyers to Send in Clemency Petition Today,” Straits Times, 20 April 1994, 3; “For: 30,200. Against: 658,” New Paper, 21 April 1994, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Fay's Caning”; Politically Untenable to Grant Clemency”; Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?
14. Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 67.
15. Nirmala, “Fay Leaves Jail.”
16. Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Nathan, “Prison Refutes 'Wild Allegations'.”
17. Nathan, “Prison Refutes 'Wild Allegations'”; Nirmala, “Fay Leaves Jail”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 8.
18. Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 30–37, 54.
19. “Fay's Caning”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 7–10.
20. “Fay's Caning”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 7–10.
21. “Fay's Caning.”
22. Liu, Singapore Foreign Service, 192–93; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 61–62.
23. “The Law Must Run Its Course,” Straits Times, 4 March 1994, 30 (From NewspaperSG); Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 55–56.
24. “Fay's Caning”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 58.
25. Ministry of Home Affairs, “High Court Judgement on Appeal By Michael Fay”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 20, 59–60.
26. “Fay's Caning”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 61–62.
27. “Law Must Run Its Course”; Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 30–37.
28. “Law Must Run Its Course”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 57.
29. Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 63.
30. Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 63.
31. Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 19–20, 66, 71.
32. Ibrahim and Chiang, “What Political Price Will Govt Pay?”; Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 67.
33. Latif, Flogging of Singapore, 67.
34. Nathan, “Prison Refutes 'Wild Allegations'”; Nirmala, “Fay Leaves Jail”; “Fay Says He's Totally Innocent and Accuses S'pore of Torture,” Straits Times, 23 June 1994, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Liu, Singapore Foreign Service, 193.



Further resources
H. C. Chan, “Friends and Ideas in Diplomacy,” in The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore's Diplomats, ed. Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies; World Scientific, 2005), 111–16. (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LIT)

Joel Hodson, “A Case for American Studies: The Michel Fay Affair. Singapore-US Relations, and American Studies in Singapore”, American Studies International 41, no. 3 (October 2003): 4–31. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

K. Kesavapany, “The Politics of Trade: Singapore and the World Trade Organisation” in The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore's Diplomats, ed. Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies; World Scientific, 2005), 191–97. (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LIT)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Comments by MFA Spokesman,” press release, 8 March 1994 (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 120-1994-03-08)

Ministy of Home Affairs, “Ministry of Home Affairs Statement on Michael Fay,” press release, 24 June 1994. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 104-1994-06-23)

Vinay Lal, V. (1994, June 4). “The Flogging of Michael Fay: Culture of Authoritarianism,” Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 23 (4 June 1994): 1386–88. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)



The information in this article is valid as at October 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

 

Subject
Crime--Singapore
Events
Criminals--Singapore
Law