What Price Clean Streets?

SINGAPORE should not flog Michael Fay, but for its own sake as much as for his, and not just because he is an American.

Mr. Fay has been sentenced to six lashes with a rattan cane after pleading guilty to charges of vandalism and mischief for spray-painting and throwing eggs at cars.

On March 31 he lost an appeal of his sentence, which also includes a fine and four months in jail, and now is seeking clemency from Singapore's president, One Ten Cheong. Michael Fay's father, George, who lives in Ohio, has estimated the chances of success in this as ``virtually zero'' and has called for an International Red Cross observer to be present when the sentence is carried out.

The case of young Fay, 18, who has lived with his mother and stepfather in Singapore for two years, has become a sticking point in United States relations with Singapore, an important American trading partner. Fay's defenders include President Clinton and members of Congress - but notably not the broad swath of Americans who have written the State Department to say that the flogging is just fine with them. ``We should have those tough kinds of punishment in America,'' a California man wrote.

The trouble is that some of these people seem to have flogging confused with spanking. Amnesty International has called flogging a form of torture; the pain of it usually sends prisoners into shock within seconds.

This critique of another society is offered with a certain trepidation as well as a consciousness of the shortcomings of one's own society: America retains the death penalty and has one of the world's highest proportions of citizens behind bars - and still has shameful crime problems. Hence, perhaps, Americans' reaction to the Fay case, to which reports of the Japanese students murdered during a car-jacking in San Pedro, Calif., have been a sad counterpoint.

One could wish for a more appealing compatriot to defend. He surely knew the law and the strictness with which it is enforced, although a police spokesman has revealed that for 1,416 acts of vandalism in 1992, only 45 people were punished.

One can sympathize with the desire for order in the streets: It is fundamental to everything from expansive economic life to the happiness of one's children. A civil authority that can afford to be Draconian on chewing gum and litter, as Singapore is, is obviously not having to deal with drive-by shootings, serial killers, and other forms of urban guerrilla warfare.

The trouble with flogging, though, is that it creates not only flogging victims but also floggers: Like capital punishment, corporal punishment defiles those that administer it and the societies that sanction it. And a society in which crimes and punishments clearly don't fit is headed for trouble, no less so than a society where law enforcement is so haphazard as not to deter crime.

The presidential clemency process typically takes three to four weeks, but a State Department spokesman suggests that it might be expedited in this case: The Singaporeans don't want to keep seeing this in the press day after day.

Singapore's former leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was noted for saying that in difficult times, order has to come before law. Let's hope his successor reverses this idea, and puts law before order.

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