Singapore's Justice Upsets an Asian Friend

THE scheduled execution of a Filipina maid in Singapore today and the uproar it has triggered in the Philippines has once again set Singapore's no-nonsense style of government on a collision course with its Asian neighbors and Western friends.

It is yet the latest example of how different Singapore is culturally from its neighbors and the West. Last year, Singapore's handling of the caning of American Michael Fay provoked a similar outburst in the Western press.

The outcry of ''frame up'' and an ''inhuman Singapore'' has been mounting in public rallies and Philippine newspaper columns in support of the convicted Filipina, Flor Contemplacion, a mother of four.

The Singapore government rejected two pleas for clemency from Philippines President Fidel Ramos and international human rights groups.

A Singapore court convicted her in April 1994 on two counts of murdering fellow Filipina maid Della Maga and Maga's four-year-old Singaporean ward, Nicholas Huang, in May 1991.

Attempts by her countrymen to save her unleashed emotions in the Philippines reminiscent of the Western press's criticism of Singapore's caning of US teenage vandal Mr. Fay last year.

Singapore also got the same drubbing two years ago when it wanted to cane thousands of illegal migrant workers from Thailand and the Philippines.

In the rich, prosperous city-state of close to 3 million people, the government has prided its well-being on a law-and-order society -- but especially order first, as its former leader, Lee Kuan Yew, would say. He shaped Singapore to be the tough ''little dragon'' economy it is today -- the richest and most disciplined member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Herein lies the difference of culture and style of government: Singapore wants to run a tight ship based on strict compliance with the law. Others prefer more humanity and compassion.

Singapore has once again showed it puts principle above compassion. It had become the Philippine's closest friend in ASEAN in recent years, with close military cooperation and trade ties. The execution might force the postponement of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's visit in mid-April. He was due to give the Philippines a strong endorsement -- a signal to Singapore investors to start coming in.

The Philippines uproar was fanned essentially by domestic politics. Politicians running for upcoming elections stoked public debate when they brought a third maid, Emilia Frenilla, to Manila to appear on TV talk shows. She claimed she overheard a conversation that proves Contemplacion was framed. Her affidavit, submitted to Singapore authorities in a last-ditch attempt for a retrial, was rejected. Ironically, the politicians asking for either a retrial or clemency were the strongest advocates of the return of the death penalty to the country.

Yet no voice was raised almost a year ago when Contemplacion was convicted. She became a cause celebre two weeks before her execution.

Suddenly politicians were denouncing the government for neglecting the maid's case. Christian fundamentalists, human rights groups, the International Labour Organization, and church leaders appealed for clemency.

Without the benefit of all the details, emotions were easily whipped up. Feelings of persecution among Filipinos by other richer nations are common whenever Filipino workers run afoul of the law or are maltreated abroad.

The Philippines is one of the world's biggest labor sources. At least 3 million Filipinos work abroad and are the country's biggest single source of foreign exchange. Yet the government has no resources to look after them.

When news reports from the Middle East tell of Filipinos being beheaded for crimes like murder or robbery, they are greeted with silence. The Philippines government has said it was powerless to do anything for them. The Contemplacion case has become the focal point of a long-standing debate over the mistreatment of Filipinos working abroad.

The Singapore case of Contemplacion has tugged at Filipino heartstrings. She is a Madonna figure Catholic Filipinos identify with. But the death of the other maid, Maga, was not even mentioned in the outpouring of anger.

To Filipinos, a poor maid who sacrificed so much to work abroad can't be capable of evil. ''When a foreign court convicts a Filipino, they [Filipinos] become sovereign-sensitive,'' a Western diplomat said about the cultural divide.

Singapore officials are confident the controversy will blow over.

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