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Michael Peter Fay (b. 30 May 1975, St. Louis, Missouri, United States - ) was an American teenager who 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. His case attracted a lot of international attention, particularly in the United States (US), and even then US president Bill Clinton intervened to 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.
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 other signboards. Later that month, he was also charged with vandalising a number of cars and committing several acts of mischief, including spray-painting the cars and throwing eggs at some of them. In total, he was charged with 45 counts of vandalism, six counts of mischief, one count of retaining stolen items and one count of possessing firecrackers - 53 charges in all.
On 28 February 1994, he pleaded guilty in the district court to two counts of vandalism, two counts of mischief and one count of possessing stolen property. Besides these five charges, 16 other counts of vandalism and four other counts of mischief were also taken into consideration. On 3 March, he 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 charges. He was acquitted of the remaining 28 charges.
Fay's appeal against the sentence of jail and caning was heard in the high court on 31 March. It was dismissed by the chief justice and he began serving his four-month jail term that day. On 20 April, he petitioned to then Singapore president Ong Teng Cheong to be spared the caning. Earlier that month, Clinton had also asked Ong to commute the caning sentence. On 4 May, the government announced that it had reduced the sentence from six to four strokes to show consideration for Clinton and the US as it valued Singapore's good relations with the US. Fay was caned on 5 May. After spending 83 days in jail, he was released early on 21 June for good behaviour and left Singapore for the US the next day.
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. Critics launched scathing attacks on Singapore for what they considered an archaic, barbaric act of torture, giving horrifying and often exaggerated descriptions of the punishment to support their objection. 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. 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. Some, including a number of US legislators, even suggested that the US learn from Singapore and adopt the caning sentence.
Despite the widespread support for Singapore among the American public, the US government repeatedly expressed its objection to Singapore's decision to cane Fay. Clinton's personal interest in the case and open disapproval of the caning sentence contributed to the issue escalating into a diplomatic crisis. On 3 March, the day the sentence was passed, US chargé d'affaires Ralph Boyce said the punishment was too severe for the offence. A few days later, Clinton called the punishment extreme and urged Singapore to reconsider the sentence. After Fay's appeal was dismissed on 31 March, Boyce again criticised the decision and it was reported that a letter signed by 24 US senators had been sent to Ong requesting presidential clemency for Fay. 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.
From the beginning, the Singapore government found itself having to defend the sentence and Singapore's right to uphold its own laws, especially in the face of unfavourable media coverage in the US. 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". Various Singapore ministers also spoke publicly about the case throughout the episode. 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."
While the Singapore government had to deal with harsh criticisms from abroad, Singaporeans were quick to rally behind their government, and the foreign media and political pressures only served to strengthen their support. To them, the case had become an issue of preserving their nation's sovereignty. Thus many were disappointed, 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".
Although the reduction of Fay's caning sentence did not fully satisfy the US government, it did help to ease tensions. On 5 May, after the caning had been carried out, then US vice-president Al Gore said the US government was disappointed but would move on from the incident. 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.
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 helping to sustain media interest. Nonetheless, relations between Singapore and the US eventually returned to normal, albeit after several years.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2009 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.