THE CANING OF MICHAEL FAY: The Inside Story by a Singaporean

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The Inside Story by a Singaporean
by Gopal Baratham
(Published by KRP Publications, Singapore, 1994)

< ISBN:9810057474 > Buy it from

Review by Kevin

In the wake of Singapore's controversial caning of American teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994, at least two books were published in that country. This one, "The Caning of Michael Fay," concentrated on the personal aspects, the punishment, and the sociology, while another focused on Singapore's standing in the international political community as the events unfolded.

Gopal Baratham, the author of this book, is a neurosurgeon and Singaporean novelist. He is a committed liberal in a country where that is not in style, and he is opposed to capital and corporal punishment.

His personal beliefs, which he states outright, are not only that such punishments are improper, but because of the doctor's upbringing in Asian culture and the proper treatment of foreigners, that the Singapore President should have granted clemency to Fay. After all, Dr Baratham argues, Fay was a foreigner whose vandalism was non-violent.

Personal beliefs aside, Dr Baratham takes the reader through an analysis not only of Fay and his case, but also Singapore law and society, and the punishment of caning itself.

His product is both interesting and troubling.

Interesting, because of the descriptions of caning and some photographs of the results of it. Troubling, because of some basic sloppiness.

Overall, those who had followed all the news accounts of the Fay saga at the time (or who have caught up since on the internet archives) probably won't learn much from this book, though there are definitely some very complete descriptions of the punishment itself.

The photographs in the book certainly bear mentioning, and in fact a starburst blurb on the cover sells it as "Exclusive Photos & Personal Interviews." The cover itself is a color shot of a uniformed man, apparently Asian, wielding a cane onto a lighter-skinned man bent over the A-frame, with three bloody-looking stripes of a cane clearly apparent (Fay was given a total of four).

But nowhere could the reviewer find any explanation of that photo (and I've looked for five years now!). Was it really Fay? How could this be photographed with the strict privacy of canings under Singapore law? If it wasn't him, was this another -- nonjudicial -- caning, or was it simply a faked shot from a photo studio?

Similarly, there are two interviews inside of Asian men who were said to have been caned judicially. One says the punishment is positively terrible, the other, that it isn't quite so bad. But in that section, there are two black-and-white photos of the results of past canings. One says "this man received 6 strokes of the cane," and the other, "this man was caned for drug use." But a close examination of the photos reveals that the buttocks scars, as well as the tattoos on the back, of the subjects are very, very similar in pattern. Are these in fact two photos of the same guy? Why aren't we told?

The sloppiness in presentation goes beyond just the photographs. (The reviewer has been warned of "Singlish," the Singapore dialect of English, but the problems go beyond just grammar.)

In one case, the ex-convict who tells how awful the punishment is describes a six-stroke caning, but a repeated reading of his very complete and graphic description adds up only to five strokes.

The book opens with an account of what it must have been like for Fay's mother to give birth to him in 1975, and takes up space with pictures of his luxurious apartment complex and school campus in Singapore. This is, perhaps, a little off the focus of the book; perhaps not.

On one of the introductory pages, the publishing house, KRP, gives its company name differently in two references on the same page.

Some tight editing would have been in order here!

The photos and the interviews (which also include one of a former caner who gave up his job) are worth a look, though all in all Dr Baratham's book is a little disappointing.


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