Six Lashes In Singapore

THE ISLAND REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE IS a tightly run ship. The bustling city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula is forbiddingly clean and orderly, and antisocial behavior simply isn't tolerated. An American teenager learned that the hard way last week when he pleaded guilty to vandalism and other relatively minor offenses. Michael Peter Fay, 18, who lives in Singapore with his mother and businessman stepfather, was sentenced to four months in jail, $2,200 in fines-and six lashes from a rattan cane.

Caning is a traditional punishment in which a martial-arts expert flogs the bare buttocks with a stick half an inch thick. It hurts like the dickens and often splits the skin. The practice is cruel enough to have been criticized in a U.S. State Department report last year on human-rights abuses.

Fay's crime consisted of disfiguring two cars with eggs and spray paint. He also was caught in possession of stolen road signs and Singapore flags, left behind by a departing friend. "We see a large discrepancy between the offense and the punishment," said Ralph Boyce, a U.S. Embassy official who attended the trial. "The cars were not permanently damaged; the paint was removed with thinner. Caning leaves permanent scars. In addition, the accused is a teenager, and this is his first offense."

A spokesman for the island's Home Affairs Ministry pointed out that Singapore is no New York. "Unlike some other societies, which may tolerate acts of vandalism," he sniffed, "Singapore has its own standards of social order." In Washington, President Clinton was asked about the case at a press conference with the visiting Ukrainian president. "First I've heard of this. I'll look into it," said Clinton. "Thank you for bringing it to my attention." Meanwhile, young Fay was out on $47,000 bail, awaiting the outcome of an appeal and hoping to be spared the rod.