Caught in the middle over Michael Fay

American teenager Michael Peter Fay , then 18, being led out of the Queenstown Remand Prison by his father George Fay (left) and his stepfather Marco Chan (right).
American teenager Michael Peter Fay , then 18, being led out of the Queenstown Remand Prison by his father George Fay (left) and his stepfather Marco Chan (right).PHOTO: ST FILE

Former president S.R. Nathan launches his memoirs, An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency, tomorrow. We publish here an edited extract concerning the Michael Fay episode in 1994, when Mr Nathan was Singapore’s ambassador to the United States.

Possibly the most memorable part of my stint as ambassador in Washington followed an unfortunate incident that took place in Singapore. An 18-year-old US citizen named Michael Fay was among a group of youths arrested by the Singapore police on suspicion of vandalising some cars. 

On March 3, 1994, Fay was convicted in the Subordinate Courts on two charges of vandalism, two charges of mischief and one charge of dishonestly retaining stolen property. Sixteen other charges of vandalism and four other charges of mischief were taken into account. It emerged that at least 67 cars were affected. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to four months’ jail, six strokes of the cane and a fine of $3,500.

News of the case quickly reached the United States, but initially there was no more public reaction than one would expect following the arrest of any young American offender overseas. US media interest was initially limited. Stories focused on the merits and demerits of corporal punishment and caning as a deterrent. This was against a backdrop of letters and polling data indicating that there was significant public support in the United States for Singapore’s contention that corporal punishment did indeed deter. In Lee Kuan Yew’s words, “It is not painless. It does what it is supposed to do, to remind the wrongdoer that he should never do it again.”

However, I sensed rough weather ahead. In my communications to MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) headquarters, I stressed that we should not assume that American public opinion, except for small sections, was totally with us. While we seemed to be getting overwhelming endorsement, this was changing as the campaign against us in the United States was intensifying.

True, the conservative right and many ordinary Americans were disgusted with their own crime situation and feared growing lawlessness. However, it was hard to determine accurately to what degree this represented the majority opinion. 

I also pointed out that as the American public attention span tended to be short, opinion could be fickle. Sentiment could well swing against us if our actions were continuously misrepresented and projected as inhumane, particularly in TV news and talk shows.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the US embassy in Singapore was “in between ambassadors” – Jon Huntsman had left and Timothy Chorba had not yet taken up his post. Ralph “Skip” Boyce was holding the fort, but he was a senior official without a political master. He was coming under pressure from all sides, Michael Fay’s highly agitated mother included, and he clearly felt he had no alternative but to defend the US position without giving an inch.

Growing media speculation

After a few days, media coverage began to grow. There was increasing speculation about what state Michael Fay was in. A much earlier Straits Times description of the practical details of caning (published originally as a deterrent for our hardcore secret society gangsters, with due reference to severity and the consequent scars) was repeatedly brought out in the US media, as was a 46-year-old Singaporean businessman’s first-hand description of a caning that been administered when he was 17, which had appeared in The New Paper.

Among the most serious coverage was an op-ed in the New York Times on April 10, 1994, calling on readers to protest. The article included the ambassador’s telephone number, asking the public to “flood the Singapore embassy with phone calls”. Not surprisingly we experienced a daily deluge of phone calls, averaging over 400 a day at one point.

Security precautions were taken with the full cooperation of the US authorities. I was accorded full-time protection by the US Secret Service until the matter died down.

Meanwhile, President (Bill) Clinton criticised the punishment in a doorstop interview even before making representations at the official level. At a Washington, DC news conference on March 7, 1994, he said, “We recognise that they (Singapore) have a certain right to enforce their own criminal laws but we believe that based on the facts and the treatment of other cases – similar cases – that this punishment is extreme, and we hope very much that somehow it will be reconsidered.”

This had the effect of mobilising US official and public opinion. A few days later, a formal message from President Clinton was relayed to Singapore. The letter, dated April 5, 1994, and addressed to President Ong Teng Cheong, was to support Fay’s parents’ appeal for clemency for Fay. 

Mr Clinton stressed his respect for the competence of the Singapore judiciary and his belief that Americans overseas must respect the laws of foreign countries. However, he appealed for Fay’s sentence of caning to be commuted in view of his youth, his status as a first offender, and his personal circumstances.

As the day of Fay’s court appearance approached, speculation about the case continued, but the balance of opinion still seemed to be overwhelmingly in Singapore’s favour. I was not surprised. Crime was on the rise, even in the nation’s capital, and it seemed to many that people on the liberal end of the spectrum spent too much time finding excuses and defending the perpetrators. To some, the judiciary also sometimes seemed overly sympathetic to the offender.

No special treatment

Meanwhile, President Clinton’s request was under consideration by the Singapore Government at Cabinet level. I was forewarned that when the decision was reached, I would have the job of conveying it to the White House. The message came in the early evening. I was asked to deliver it immediately. Perhaps the sense of urgency arose from the expectation that a reduction in the punishment from six strokes of the cane to four, out of consideration for Mr Clinton’s appeal, would be received with appreciation. That did not turn out to be so.

I went to the Old Executive Building at the White House, on May 2, 1994, at 9pm together with Ng Teck Hean, then my first secretary. I met my friend Stanley Roth (then director for Asian affairs, National Security Council). His face fell when he heard that the President’s appeal had not been totally granted. He made it clear that the message would not go down well and he feared the worst from the White House – perhaps he expected some policy retaliation. 

However, he said, “At this late stage, there is no point talking about details.” He added that “obviously President Clinton and we would have preferred a total clemency”.

A factor in our own minds was that Singapore could not be seen to be practising double standards. We had previously caned many of our own criminal offenders, and nationals from neighbouring countries. Our own public and these governments were watching closely to see if an American would get special treatment.

Prior to all these official exchanges, the embassy was urgently invited to send a representative to appear on the television talk show Larry King Live. After some deliberation, MFA in Singapore directed that I should appear myself and so I did.

I was expecting a public grilling seen by a worldwide audience. I was also prepared to stand my ground. On March 17, 1994, we got a message from Katie Thompson, the programme’s producer, to take part in the edition to be broadcast on or around March 22, 1994. The interview eventually took place on March 26.

When I went to the studio, I was put in a room to await a call. The request to move to the recording studio never came and I was told I would be interviewed in situ. The arrangements seemed rather odd – Larry King, Michael Fay’s father and a lawyer were in one room and I was in another, with the Secret Service guarding my door. The interview went ahead and I kept my cool throughout, but it did not last the hour that I had been told to expect.

Later, I asked the lady in charge of me why we were not all in the same room. She said that there had been concerns for my safety – Fay’s father was in a terrible mood and there were fears he might assault me on-camera. She also said that the calls received from viewers had been overwhelmingly in my favour.

After I got back to the embassy, my first phone call was from my friend Lim Chin Beng of SIA, who happened to be in Los Angeles and had seen the transmission. He congratulated me on my performance, as did many American friends. MFA in Singapore was also pleased. I felt a huge sense of relief.

A ‘dead issue’ for Clinton

In fairness, relations with President Clinton himself did not seem to have been too badly affected. Before my appearance on Larry King Live, I attended the annual White House reception for the diplomatic corps and was received by Mr Clinton and his wife in a perfectly cordial manner. They asked me to convey to PM Goh Chok Tong their warm regards. Later, I was told by an informed source that the caning was, for Mr Clinton, a “dead issue”.

After Michael Fay’s release from jail, I heard that he would be flying to Los Angeles. There was talk to the effect that his mother had already got some company to turn his story into a film. I waited for news of their return to the United States.

On the day mother and son landed, June 17, 1994, another event exploded all over the TV networks. The police were chasing O.J. Simpson down a Los Angeles highway, intent on arresting him for the alleged murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman three days earlier. 

The drama, in which Simpson’s vehicle was being followed by several police cars, was broadcast live on local and national news networks with the aid of helicopter-mounted cameras and was attracting nearly 100 million viewers. The coverage continued for weeks.

From a news standpoint, Michael Fay’s return was a non-event.