Friday, April 22, 1994

To Flog or Not is Hardly the Question

Isn't it just astounding how much international commotion one graffiti artist can be the cause of? Obviously this young American's upbringing did not include respect for other people's property. Unfortunately, he chose the pristine Singapore to display his talent (or whatever) rather than say New York, where his contribution would be just one more blip in midst of a cacophony of obscenities.

Much has been said about this unfortunate young man from many sides involving even the President of the United States. In the overall scheme of things with the world in turmoil, does this one individual deserve this much attention? No doubt, the Michael Fay issue is another example of the East/West cultural collision. Rather than cover the ground already discussed ad nauseam by many others, let us examine some tangential aspects of this incident.

However well intentioned, Clinton did not do Fay any favors when he publicly condemned flogging as cruel and unusual punishment. The President got bad advice, because the pronouncement served only to stiffen the Singapore government. Face was now at stake. No sovereign government, especially in Asia, wanted to be seen as subservient to Washington. The only route, in my opinion, that had any chance of getting Fay off would have been a private letter from the President to the president of Singapore asking for clemency on Fay's behalf--assuming that was the desired objective.

However, to digress a little, subtlety has not been a trademark of the Clinton's administration in any of their dealings in Asia, whether it be China, Japan, North Korea or Singapore. Hardnosed. Insist. Demand. Condemn. These have characterized their action and attitude whether the issue be trade, human rights or nuclear proliferation. So far, this has not led to any of the aforementioned Asian nations to cave in. A softer approach would have been more effective. Asian martial arts emphasize toppling the opposition by using the perpetrator's strength against himself. The administration can learn from this philosophy.

To digress even further, what if the culprit had been an African American from say East Palo Alto? Would the Singaporean court mete out the same sentence? I am not familiar with Singapore's justice system, but my guess is that it is apt to be more color blind than say Los Angeles and would have passed out a similar punishment. Would such a sentence arouse as much furor in the U.S.? What do you think? Be objective now, please.

The "Crossfire" program on CNN (its availability makes it a favorite network of mine when travelling in Asia) dealt with the flogging issue by having an Asian business consultant living in San Francisco explain the Singaporean point of view, which she did most admirably. She did it so well that the exasperated host, Michael Kingsley, finally asked the inappropriate question: "If you like Singapore so much why aren't you living in Singapore?" (Kingsley did preface the question by acknowledging that it was inappropriate.) My answer would have been: "I choose to live here because the U.S. is where I belong. However, if I choose to live elsewhere I would expect to abide by the laws that exist there."