Michael P. Fay

From Academic Kids

Michael Peter Fay is an American who was caned in Singapore on May 5, 1994 for theft and vandalism despite pleas from the United States government and press for clemency.


Caning in Singapore

Caning was introduced to Singapore by the British when they controlled Singapore as part of their colonial empire. More than one thousand people are caned in Singapore each year for crimes ranging from violent ones to non-violent ones like vandalism or overstaying one’s work visa.

The criminal is completely stripped and lashed on the buttocks using a bamboo cane that has been soaked in water overnight to prevent the cane from splitting and to maximize inflicted pain. Parts of the criminal's body are padded to prevent accidental damaging of the kidneys. A doctor monitors the caning process. Caning can only be carried out by trained male officers, and will leave permanent scarring on the buttocks.

Life prior to caning

Michael Fay was born on May 30, 1975 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, George Fay, was the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Michael’s mother, Randy, divorced his father when he was eight. In his childhood, Michael was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

Although Michael mostly lived with his father after the divorce, he later moved to Singapore where his mother and step-father Marco Chan lived. Michael was enrolled in Singapore American School.

Theft and vandalism

Between September and October of 1993, several expensive cars in Singapore were found pelted with eggs and spray painted. The police eventually captured and arrested a 16-year old suspect, Shui Chi Ho, from Hong Kong. After questioning Shui, the police had several expatriate students from Singapore American School, including Michael Fay, questioned and then charged them with vandalism. Fay pleaded guilty for vandalizing the cars in addition to stealing road signs. Under the 1966 Vandalism Act, which was originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti in Singapore, he was sentenced to four months in jail, a fine of S$3,500 Singapore dollars (US $2,233 or 1,450 British pounds), and six lashes of the cane. (Shui, who pleaded not guilty, was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison and twelve strokes of the cane.)

Fay's lawyers appealed, arguing that the Vandalism Act provides caning only for indelible forms of graffiti vandalism and that the spray-painted cars were cheaply restored to their original condition. Although the appeal failed, U.S. pressure made the Singaporean government reduce Fay's caning from six to four strokes. Fay was caned on May 5, 1994.

The U.S. response

The official U.S. position was that while it recognized Singapore’s right to try and punish Fay with due process of law, it deemed the punishment of caning to be excessive for a teenager committing a nonviolent crime. The U.S. embassy in Singapore pointed out that the graffiti damage that Fay made on the cars was not permanent, but caning would leave Fay with physical as well as long term emotional scars.

U.S. President Bill Clinton called the punishment prescribed by Singapore extreme and a mistake, continuing to pressure the Singaporean government to grant Fay clemency from caning. Two dozen U.S. senators signed a letter to the Singaporean government also appealing for clemency. After Fay’s punishment was executed, the U.S. Trade Representative said that he would try to prevent the World Trade Organization’s first ministerial meeting from taking place in Singapore.

The U.S. media sensationalized and saturated its coverage of Michael Fay. The New York Times had several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy with protests. Newsday wrote about a person who claimed to have witnessed a graphic public caning event in Singapore, despite the fact that Singapore does not provide public canings. Some commentaries treated the Michael Fay affair as a clash of civilizations between the so-called Asian values and concept of human rights with the so-called Western values and concept of human rights.

U.S. public opposition of the caning was uncertain as opinion polls produced by different news organizations contradicted each other. Nevertheless, a significant number of vocal Americans were in favor of the caning perhaps because they felt that their own country was not tough on crime or because they believed that Singapore had a right to use corporal punishment if it so chose.

The Singaporean response

The Singaporean government did not appreciate the U.S. government interfering with the way Singapore carried out punishments within the due process of law. A huge majority of the public in Singapore backed their government, upset that a foreigner living in their country was trying to be above the law.

If the United States viewed caning of juveniles as a human rights issue, then honorably it should actively try to stop the caning of other juvenile offenders in Singapore other than Michael Fay. The Singaporean public also felt that compared to the seemingly lax penal system in the United States, their harsh penal system made their country very safe and almost crime free.

Additionally Singapore, as a sovereign state, was not obliged in any way to base its actions on the will of the American public or government. As for the U.S. Trade Representative saying that he would stop the World Trade Organizationís meeting from taking place in Singapore, one questions the relation between judiciary proceedings and trade. The American public and media criticised Singapore and even called for attacks on the Singaporean embassy, showing that they did not respect the Singaporean court and its laws.

The Singaporean press also somewhat saturated its coverage about Michael Fay. Initial news about the capturing of the expatriate vandals made front page even though other forms of more heinous crimes sometimes have much lesser coverage on the Singaporean newspapers.


Fay returned to the United States to live with his father. He did several television interviews. There was even talk of a book or movie deal which did not materialize largely because the O.J. Simpson car chase and subsequent murder trial stole the American public's attention for so long that Fay's caning paled by comparison.

In 1994 Michael Fay suffered burns to his hands and face after a butane incident, he was subsequently admitted to a rehabilitation program for butane abuse.

In 1998 Michael Fay was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. He confessed to this charge.

The U.S. government and U.S. media moved on from the controversy, although the issue of "Asian" versus "Western" values would occasionally flare up again.

The Michael Fay incident was followed by another incident where a Filipino maid named Flor Contemplacion was convicted of the murder of her employer's son and another maid and subsequently executed. The case sparked outrage in the Philippines and highlighted the plight of Filipinos working in Singapore.

"Weird Al" Yankovic described Fay's caning in the lyrics of "Headline News", a 1994 song parodying Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm by Crash Test Dummies.


  • Latif, Asad (1994). The Flogging of Singapore: The Michael Fay Affair. Singapore: Times Books International. ISBN 981-204-530-9. See also corpun.com's review of this book (http://www.corpun.com/books5.htm#latif).
  • The Asiaweek Newsmap (April 27, 1994). Asiaweek.

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