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What Price Order?

By Hallie Z. Levine

Support for Singapore's caning ignores human rights.

When Michael Fay spray painted automobiles and threw eggs at passing cars, he wasn't expecting his actions to become the new hot topic for Primetime Live or The New York Times.

Yet the 18 year-old from Ohio is now famous--or infamous, as the case may be--for his acts of vandalism. While egg-tossing and destruction of property might be common ways for restless American teenagers to rid themselves of excess energy, it's no laughing matter in Singapore. Michael Fay has been sentenced by the Singapore courts to four months in prison, a $2,300 fine, and six lashes with a half-inch-thick rattan cane.

Americans have responded overwhelmingly in favor of this corporal punishment. The Singapore Embassy told the Associated Press that in the last several weeks it has received more than 100 letters and 200 phone calls, the majority supporting the flogging. In a society where vandalism is a daily occurrence and public property is constantly defaced by grafitti, Fay's punishment seems an easy solution to a vexing problem. As one man told reporter Karen De Witt of The New York Times, "If you've ever had your antenna ripped off your car, you can sympathize with the Government of Singapore."

There's no denying that Michael Fay committed a crime. This was no childish prank, and despite protestations that Fay is just a "boy", 18 years old is more than old enough to know better. Yet many Americans, in their haste to condemn Fay and in their own frustration at the escalating rates of crime in our own nation, have overlooked the horrific nature of the Singapore government's punishment.

The caning proposed is no mere slap on the buttocks. Prisoners are tied down to a wooden trestle and whipped by martial arts experts. The skin breaks with the first stroke of the cane, and within seconds, prisoners usually go into shock from the intense pain. Physical scars always remain.

"People seem to think this guy's getting a rap on the knuckles," says Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International. "They don't seem to realize that it's actually a form of mistreatment and torture. I'm not saying that he isn't subject to the laws of Singapore--that's not in question. What is in question is the punishment, which is itself wrong."

Groups like Amnesty International have been protesting the Singapore government's practice of caning for years. While many Americans are now expressing admiration for what they see as the laudable discipline of Singapore, they don't realize that the ruling People's Action Party has created a climate where citizens must live in constant fear and intimidation of their government. There aren't many nations where it's a crime to chew gum or even to forget to flush a public toilet.

The issue here is not whether or not Michael Fay should be punished, or whether or not he should be exempt from the judgment of the Singapore court because he is an American citizen. The issue is why we as a nation are so willing to accept a means of punishment that falls under the definition of torture. Michael Fay may rightly deserve four months in prison. He may rightly deserve to pay a $2,000 fine. Yet it's not being "soft" to protest against his caning, a punishment that allows the government of Singapore to continue torturing its citizens without reprisals from the rest of the international community.

Until there is an outcry against this practice, Americans are tacitly saying that order is worth any price, including violating the rights of other human beings.

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