A quarter of a century ago, an 18-year-old American student living in Singapore was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for writing graffiti on cars and stealing road signs. The United States protested the sentence’s severity, arguing Michael Fay’s punishment was too harsh for a teenage prank with no violent crime committed.
Fay’s case became the focus of a debate initiated by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, on how values in Asia differed from western values of democracy, freedom of expression and individual rights. Lee argued that in a developing country, in order to build fair and strong institutions, the rights of the community must supersede the rights of the individual. Hence, Fay needed tough punishment so that all teenagers, western or Asian, would be warned off vandalizing cars in Singapore. […]