A Case for American Studies: The Michael Fay Affair, Singapore-US Relations, and American Studies in Singapore

By Hodson, Joel | American Studies International, October 2003 | Go to article overview

A Case for American Studies: The Michael Fay Affair, Singapore-US Relations, and American Studies in Singapore


Hodson, Joel, American Studies International


Introduction

Although diplomatic and trade links between Singapore and the United States reach back to the early 19th century, official relations date only to Singapore's founding as an independent nation in 1965. Since then, Singapore and the United States have maintained mutually advantageous military and economic ties. In the past, some attention has been given in Singapore to American studies, but the creation of a center to study the United States did not happen until 1995, thirty years after Singapore nationhood. Given the importance of the two countries to each others' economies, the questions might be posed: why did it take so long in Singapore to formally recognize the need for better cultural understanding of the United States, and what happened in the mid-1990s to stimulate this recognition? This essay explores these questions, examines ideological differences between the two nations as manifested by the Michael Fay case and Asian values debate, and chronicles the institutionalization of American studies in Singapore. *

This essay is largely based on observations made while I was a Senior Fellow with the American Studies Centre (ASC) at the National University of Singapore from 1997-2001. Whereas I am indebted to colleagues in Singapore for their input, it is important to note that conclusions formed here are entirely my responsibility. In particular, connections between contemporary events and institutional motivations, such as the Michael Fay affair and the founding of the ASC, are my own speculations. I draw on the Fay case and other incidents in the so-called "Asian values debate" in order to demonstrate the timeliness and importance of educational exchange between Singapore and the United States in the 1990s. The link between international politics and the need for educational exchange between these two nations becomes readily apparent when reconstructing the context of the founding of the ASC.

The Michael Fay Affair and Singapore-US Relations

On Thursday October 7, 1993, the principal English-language daily in Singapore, The Straits Times, ran a seemingly insignificant news story about a series of vandalism incidents that had occurred the previous month. Hardly newsworthy in most places in the world, or even in Singapore where crime is comparatively low, the vandalism story made the front page of the newspaper beside a photograph of graffiti-covered walls. The story was titled "9 Foreign Students Held For Vandalism." Of apparent front-page news value was the fact that the perpetrators were non-Singaporeans.

One of the youths apprehended, a student from Hong Kong, identified several accomplices in the vandalism spree, including 18 year-old American Michael Fay, who attended the Singapore-American School, an exclusive private institution for children of expatriates based in Singapore. Fay was subsequently arrested and charged with over 50 counts of vandalism. In due course, the case moved through the courts, and in March 1994 Fay agreed to a plea bargain and was convicted on two counts of vandalism and possession of stolen property. The vandalism charges stemmed from his allegedly spray painting two cars with "an indelible substance," even though the paint was found to be easily removable with paint thinner. While in custody without benefit of counsel Fay confessed to the charges, but upon release he recanted, claiming that he had been coerced into making a statement. For his crimes, Fay was sentenced to four months in prison, six strokes of a rattan cane, and a Singaporean $3500 fine (approximately US$2230 at the time).

Because the sentence involved flogging, in this instance the caning of an American, the Michael Fay case escalated into an international human rights issue, and Fay was portrayed as a political pawn. Unexpectedly, the affair fueled a cultural values debate that threatened Singapore-US relations, involving not only the respective ambassadors but also the offices of the presidents of both nations.

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