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Judicial CP - November 1994

Corpun file 1190 at

Northwest Asian Weekly, Seattle, USA, 4 November 1994

The Other Caning

By Sam Sheikh

In recent months, there has been no mention of Michael Fay or Singapore canings.

Not because such canings haven't happened. But, in this case "who" gets flogged may determine newsworthiness.

Remember Michael Fay, the American teenager who was flogged for "petty vandalism" in Singapore? Convicted of spray painting cars and stealing road signs, the 19 year-old Fay was sentenced to four months in prison and six strokes of the cane, "brutal" punishment for youthful rashness.

William Safire called this punishment "torture" (New York Times, 7 April, 1994). In his column, Safire cited Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate's definition of torture as "the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure." Safire said that this "torture is a crime against humanity."

American newspapers decried the punishment. Legal appeals by Fay's lawyer, a clemency plea by President Clinton and the intense media scrutiny called for Fay to be spared the rod. Under this combined pressure, his sentence was reduced from six to four strokes of the cane. Fay also served just 83 days of his four month term.

The Fay case stirred enormous controversy and brought up the issue of human rights violations in far-flung, so-called Third World countries such as Singapore.

Meanwhile, another teenager was flogged in Singapore, and the media's silence about it was deafening. Shiu Cho Ho, from Hong Kong, was a member of the group of teens (including Fay) arrested for vandalism. Convicted of the same crimes as Fay, Shiu Cho Ho was sentenced to eight months imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane, double the sentence meted out to Fay.

Yet, a recent search in the University of Oregon's library reveals that out of 16 articles about the flogging, only one mentions Shiu. Nobody sought clemency on Shiu's behalf. Except for the single two-inch afterthought on page 18 of the 2 April issue of the New York Times, placed below yet another six-inch article on Fay, the Times' indignation at "crimes against humanity" was reserved only for Fay's plight. The editors at the Times, or indeed at any other American newspaper, did not see fit to address Shiu's predicament. (Although Shiu did not appeal his sentence, Singapore's President Ong Teng Cheong offered clemency, reducing his sentence from 12 strokes and eight months to six strokes and six months.)

Was the media unaware of Shiu's plight? Did the American press think that caning could leave scars only on American buttocks but not on Asian buttocks? Does Safire think of caning/torture as a "crime against humanity" particularly if inflicted against white humanity? The media's silence and seeming indifference to the Shiu case stands starkly in contrast to the "air time" that was afforded to Fay. This unequal coverage seriously questions the impartiality of the media.

Furthermore, the New York times editorial of the 13 April issue declared that it was "Time to Assert American Values." It denied that asserting for American values was an "act of cultural arrogance." Yet, both cultural arrogance and cultural ignorance are overwhelmingly in evidence.

Cultural arrogance is suggested in Safire's column. In defending American law, Safire said the American death penalty was unlike caning/torture because "that retributive justice by lethal injection is painless." However, Webster's Third New International defines homicide as "a killing of one human being by another," with no mention of the extent of pain inflicted. Following this definition, the death penalty that Safire endorses is homicide. Safire called caning "state-sponsored homicide." Safire blasts Singapore's "right to torture" but strangely, defends the American "right to kill."

Cultural ignorance appears in the misconceptions and inaccuracies reported by the American media about caning. The American public is told that a martial artist is employed to administer the punishment, bringing to mind a Ninja-clad sadist. Safire wrote that "a doctor attends only to make certain the victim remains conscious to feel the excruciating pain." Also, he said caning "elicits the screams satisfying to the torturer."

First, the media omitted the fact that Singapore law dictates that children, women, men over 65 years of age, and men with health conditions that make caning potentially fatal are exempt from caning. The caning is done by a professional, just as executions are. This ensures that the blows do not strike the head, the spine, the kidneys or the genitals. A doctor inspects the person to ensure that he is not in danger of cardiac arrest. The object of the caning is to punish, not to kill. Lastly, caning brings as much satisfaction to the caner as it does to an executioner - it is a job, nothing more and nothing less. To say that enjoyment or satisfaction is derived from carrying out a legal punishment suggests cultural arrogance and ignorance.

Media hysteria blew things out of proportion. But what's more alarming is that a lot of important information was left out in a favor of sensational pseudo-news and self-righteous indignation at human-rights abuses. While the name "Fay" has become almost synonymous with victimization in an Asian land, the name "Shiu" remains just another Asian name.

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