Despite a decision by the government here to reduce the flogging sentence against an American teen-ager by two lashes as a gesture to President Clinton, the White House on Wednesday expressed disapproval, and the youth’s mother said the punishment is still torture.
“We’re disappointed,” White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said after the Singaporean decision to proceed with the caning of Michael P. Fay, 18, who entered a guilty plea to spray-painting cars in March, touching off a worldwide controversy about vandalism and appropriate punishment.
Myers noted that Clinton had sent a letter appealing for the caning sentence to be commuted.
“We believe the punishment is out of step with the crime. We believe that the government knows our position on that,” she said.
Randy Chan, Fay’s mother, said she expects the sentence of four strokes of the rattan cane may now be carried out immediately after the government decision to reject her son’s clemency appeal. She said that even with the reduction, she found the punishment excessive.
“It’s torture at six strokes, and it’s torture at four strokes,” Chan said in an interview.
“As a mother,” she added, “I’m grateful for the reduction in the punishment. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the punishment is excessive or that Michael was coerced into confessing to a crime he did not commit.”
Fay, a senior at the $10,000-a-year Singapore American School at the time of his arrest last year, had been sentenced to receive six strokes of a four-foot rattan cane after pleading guilty in March to vandalism, mischief and possessing stolen property. He also received a four-month jail term, which he began serving March 31, and a $2,230 fine.
After saying for two months that the government would not intervene in the judicial process in the Fay case, the Singapore Cabinet on Wednesday shifted course and ordered President Ong Teng Cheong to reduce the sentence.
Western diplomats said it was the first time they could recall the government ever accepting a clemency appeal, even partially.
The effect was to create a “lose-lose situation,” said one diplomat, noting that critics will still deride the government for excessive punishment while supporters will be disenchanted by the government’s apparent concession to the United States.
The government said in a statement that it tried to accommodate Clinton because Singapore values its good relations--economic and military--with the United States, the largest foreign investor here. The U.S. Navy now regularly uses permanent facilities in Singapore.
Clinton had called the caning for Fay extreme and urged the Singaporeans to grant clemency. The Singapore government statement said it appreciated Clinton’s statement that Americans overseas must abide by the laws of foreign countries.
“To reject his appeal totally would show an unhelpful disregard for the President and the domestic pressures on him in this issue,” the statement said. “Therefore, even though the Cabinet found no merit in Fay’s petition, it sought a way to accommodate President Clinton’s appeal for clemency without compromising the principle that persons convicted of vandalism must be caned.”
In a speech on Wednesday morning, Foreign Minister Shunmugan Jayakumar said the issue in the Fay case was not caning but whether “a country should not respect the right of another country to enact and enforce its laws within its jurisdiction, even though one may disagree with that law, so long as such law is applied without discrimination and after due process of law.”
In the Fay case, the youth’s family has maintained that he was singled out because he is American, noting that vandalism laws calling for mandatory caning sentences were adopted in the 1960s to fight political graffiti; they were never used before in cases of damage to private property.
The Fay case has become a global cause celebre, the subject of countless talk shows and newspaper editorials, as many people in the West vent their frustration with crime.
The government has given no hint when Fay might be caned, but a statement released by the prisons department on Tuesday said that he would be given no advance notice.
Fay’s mother said the coincidental timing of the statement with her visit to the prison suggested that the punishment is imminent; she noted that she will not be able to see her son for another two weeks. With time off for good behavior, Fay will be released from jail on June 21.
Chan compared her son’s plight to a case reported this week in which a Singapore man was given three months in jail for burning his 20-month-old son’s face with a lighted cigarette, incense sticks and a hard-boiled egg. She said the case showed that Singapore “attached much less value to human life than a manufactured vehicle.”