Monday, March 23, 2009

The day Michael Fay saved me from jail

March 22, 2009

Even in the US, some believe that giving up a bit of freedom can serve the greater good

By Lee Wei Ling

Someone e-mailed me an article from the San Francisco Chronicle titled 'Singapore blooms as lush as Eden itself', by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, about our city in a garden.

'Unfortunately, what most Westerners know about Singapore,' she notes, 'is limited to the restrictions imposed on its citizens by a repressive government that dictates the mix of races; regulates reproductive matters, public housing and other seemingly personal matters; bans chewing gum, canes kids and keeps a stranglehold on the media.'

I read the article with amusement and recalled the day Michael Fay saved me from being thrown into jail in New Hampshire. For those too young to remember Fay, let me relate his story.

In 1993, the then 18-year-old and his friends damaged 18 cars in a 10-day spree of vandalism and mischief. Stolen road signs and Singapore flags were also found in his home. Fay was caught, charged and pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced him to six strokes of the cane and four months in jail.

The American media went berserk; then US President Bill Clinton appealed to then President Ong Teng Cheong to pardon the teenager; the Singapore Government agreed to reduce the sentence to four strokes of the rotan; the US media was not satisfied.

At the time of his arrest in Singapore, Fay was living with his mother and stepfather. On his release from prison in June 1994, he returned to the US to live with his father.

A few months later, the US press reported that he had come home intoxicated late one night and had charged at his father. A month later, he was badly burnt sniffing butane when a friend struck a match.

He admitted that he had been a butane addict while in Singapore.

Fay was far from my mind when I spent three wonderful days hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in October 1995.

It was fall and the mountains were covered with red, yellow, rust and gold foliage with tiny flecks of green - a work of art which no human painter can ever equal either in magnitude or splendour.

Just before heading back to Boston, I stopped at a tiny souvenir shop. I bought a sweatshirt with a moose printed on it for my mother.

I then saw a T-shirt with the New Hampshire state emblem, the head of an eagle, and the words 'Live Free or Die' printed around the emblem.

I have always avoided wearing anything which makes a statement. But I could not resist buying this T-shirt. Then I hit the highway again, heading for Boston.

The highways in America are wonderful. They are multiple-lane affairs, with a physical separation between the traffic going in opposite directions. This makes speeding on them safer than in Singapore.

Soon, I was cruising at 195kmh with Scottish music playing at full blast in the background.

Because of the loud music, it took me some time before I noticed a police siren and slowed down.

With its red, white and blue lights flashing, the police car overtook my vehicle and signalled for me to pull over. I did so and the police car stopped ahead of me.

The policeman walked over to my car, demanded to see my driving licence, then yanked me out, saying: 'I am bringing you to the police station to be locked up.'

I protested: 'I was only speeding. I will pay the fine and you should let me off.'

He shot back: 'You were not only speeding. You disobeyed the law by not stopping immediately when I flashed the light to signal you to stop.'

He shoved me into his car and drove off, leaving my rental car by the roadside with all my belongings, including my newly purchased T-shirts, in it and the car door still open.

He radioed back to the police station, saying he was bringing someone in to the lock-up.

'What do you work as?' he asked me.

I replied: 'I am a doctor.'

'I hope you are a better doctor than a driver. Are you on drugs?'

'No. Do I look as though I am on drugs?'

'No, you look as though you were concentrating on overtaking every car ahead of you.'

That was indeed what I was doing. How often in Singapore can one drive at 195kmh? But I chose not to voice that thought.

Suddenly he asked: 'What do Singaporeans think of Americans?'

I replied quite sincerely: 'We like Americans. Hewlett-Packard, IBM and other multinational companies create jobs for us. But you probably don't like Singaporeans because we caned Michael Fay.'

His whole demeanour changed when I mentioned Fay.

'Michael Fay deserved to be caned,' he said firmly. 'He has been causing trouble since he returned to the US.'

He told me how his best friend, also a policeman, had been shot point-blank and died that morning when he stopped a speeding car. That was why he was in such a foul mood.

From that point on, our conversation got friendlier. We talked about hiking in New Hampshire, how we drove on the left in Singapore and so on.

Without my realising it, he had turned around and had driven back to where my rental car was. A tow truck had just arrived, but my policeman shooed it away.

He walked me to my car, told me to 'drive safely' and walked off. He did not fine me, nor did he charge me for activating the tow truck.

I drove back to Boston hardly believing my good luck.

American journalists may flog Singapore because of its perceived limitations on personal freedom, but there are some Americans - even in 'Live Free or Die' New Hampshire - who feel that a compromise in personal freedom to prevent anti-social behaviour is necessary for the welfare of society.

Most Singaporeans and many Americans would agree with that sentiment.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

[ST should do a "Whatever happened to..." series on news makers in the past. Fay would be a good first candidate. ]

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