1994. That was when American teenager
Michael Fay pleaded guilty to acts of vandalism in
Singapore. Guilty of spray-painting and egging cars, little
did Michael, nor the world, know the punishment that awaits
Or his lower body.
Three whips on the bare buttocks by a
rattan stick executed by a trained martial arts official
while being tied up standing. One on each side and then an
extra cheek swat to boot. Now thatís how Singapore punishes
young hooligans who damage private property!
Supporters of the law contend that only
this kind of strict order can prevent vandalism and
inner-city crimes. Indeed, a look at urban America shows
that our Constitution needs a little whipping up to do.
After all, Michael lives in Singapore, goes to school there,
knows full well of the consequences; itís true what they
say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Contenders argue that the law abuses
human rights. Michael is just a misguided teenager who
deserves some jail time and fines but not flogging. His
sentence will heavily affect US and Singapore relations,
given that heís the first American to be caned there. The
punishment is grossly disproportionate with his crime.
This case made international headlines as
Michael lost and was sentenced to three swats of the mighty
rattan along with four months in jail and a hefty fine. But
whether he deserved it or not, one thing remains clear:
donít mess with Singapore.
In fact, many restrictions that sound
absurd to us are very serious to Singaporeans. For example,
pornography, smoking, eating, drinking, chewing gum in
public places and not flushing a toilet can all mean prison
time and or work/ fines.
Dealing in drugs means punishment by
So imagine my paranoia as I stepped out
onto the immaculate Singapore road. Wary of accidentally
brushing a grass blade, of possessing a misplaced Juicy
Fruit, or of not carefully reading some sign of law by the
sidewalk, I literally tip-toed, tensed my way down the tour
bus all the time looking around frantically, almost waiting
for the crack of an invisible whip.
The first site we visited was the Supreme
Court and executive building. First thing I noticed was the
disproportionate size of the two structures. The Court was
grand and looming, shining in the sun like a beacon of
divine justice while the little rectangular executive
building was almost half as tall and caught in the shade.
Apparently, their contrasting size is
deliberately symbolic of their roles in the city-state. The
court represents law, the written constitution, the only
power that definitively rules the country; the executive
building, its leaders and officials are mere workers of
society, in no way to sidestep or to triumph over Supreme
Directly across from the government
buildings was a long boardwalk by the port. Skateboarders
were zooming in and out under the bridges, and teens were
gathered in clumps hanging out in the balmy afternoon
weather. There was also a performing arts theatre where a
group of girls dressed up in uniform was practicing for a
In contrast with Malaysia and Thailand,
Singapore has no historical attractions or geographical
gems. No mountains, no ancient temples, just skyscraper and
And Singapore knows that. It takes pride
in being a model of the modern city, with manufacturing as
its main industry and shopping, its main attraction.
We visited a couple of jewelry stores.
Both had glass counters chocked full of the most delicate
and intricate gem pieces. Rubies, sapphires, diamonds, onyx,
Singapore takes crude gems from countries like Thailand and
South Africa and carves them into the multi-faceted luxuries
seen under the glass today.
At night, we went to a laser, water,
music wall show. Water was shot up from different places, at
different times, in tune and moving with the music. Fire
puffed out of pipes as well, and the mixture of orange flame
and clear water in the indigo sky backdrop was mesmerizing.
Added with the colored laser rays that shot through the
sprays, it felt like the music was coming alive, a fantastic
representation of a technology-driven country.
However, despite the wonderful show and
shopping, I was glad to be leaving the next day; too many
safety laws made me feel unsafe.
Alice Yang is a student at Columbia University. She can
be reached at gy2151@ Columbia.edu.