America Takes a Lickin'

Singapore's leaders use caning case as an object lesson on the deteriorating morals of the West

AFTER an 18-year-old American was sentenced to be caned in Singapore for vandalism, pollsters asked Americans for their opinions. Many said the rod should not be spared.

But nobody asked the 2 million Singaporeans. Instead, public attention in the case of Michael Fay has focused on the comments of the man who has largely shaped Singapore since its independence in 1965.

Lee Kuan Yew, who is now semiretired with the title of senior minister, lives in a palatial mansion once used by Singapore's British colonial rulers. He has inherited more than just buildings. Singapore also adopted many British legal customs, including caning (which Britain has since ended).

Mr. Lee, whose small country partly relies on United States military protection against its larger neighbors, is worried about the social decline in the US and the impact of its culture on Singapore.

The Fay case, in which the teenager admitted to spray-painting cars, has provided a convenient soapbox for Lee. The US, he said in a recent Singapore radio broadcast, ``dares not restrain or punish individuals, forgiving them for whatever they've done. That's why the whole country is in chaos. Drugs, violence, unemployment, and homelessness - all sorts of problems in its society.''

The Fay case is widely seen as a ``clash of cultures.'' One Singapore writer criticized those who argue for a more lenient sentence for vandalism as probably being ``motivated by a belief in the innate goodness of man and the possibility of his rehabilitation.''

To Lee, the US with its short history has been ``positive in its outlook,'' as each new generation improved over the previous one. But among ethnic Chinese, who dominate Singapore, the history of China, where many dynasties have fallen, stresses group interests.

His government's criteria for screening US movies and other cultural imports is simple: What is the end result?

``Do we want people to shack up?'' Lee said in a recent Monitor interview. ``Teenagers leave their homes to live with each other, and have children whom they leave to the state to look after? ... I think that will be the end of us.

``You should not abandon your basic pattern of culture, because there is a real danger of `deculturization' - of losing your own basic values without absorbing the essence of the other culture,'' Lee said.

``Culture does not consist of only customs, norms, external manifestations. There's an inner spirit to it, which holds a set of values into a coherent whole.... A culture is something that develops indigenously from within a family, to a tribe, to a clan, to a society, into a civilization.

``It comes with mother's milk. It's how people have been able to protect their integrity over the millennium.... I'm not sure this is universally true. You can take a Chinese at birth and give him to an American family, and he'll come out culturally American 20 years later. But you cannot do that for the whole of China.''

Speaking of himself, Lee noted that he was brought up in a British-colonial school, but his basic culture was an extended Chinese family. Values of right and wrong, behavior within the family, behavior to friends, behavior to authority - they were not taught in school, he said. They sprang from the home.

``Before you destroy that by showing how Americans live ... a little thought may show it's not helpful to destroy what is basically good and will help people retain their dignity and integrity.

``If you destroy a person's self-worth, you have destroyed that person.''

Michael Fay, sentenced to six lashes, has appealed for clemency to Singapore authorities.

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