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American Journalism Review
Singapore Hosts Some Most Unruly Guests  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1994

Singapore Hosts Some Most Unruly Guests   

By Rocco Parascandola
Rocco Parascandola spent two weeks covering the Faycaning for the New York Post.      


Singapore's caning of accused vandal Michael Fay on May 5 forced the city-state, which bans everything from Cosmopolitan magazine to satellite dishes, to confront the most unmanageable of monsters: the Western press.

From the start, authorities were determined to preserve the status quo, treating the two dozen foreign reporters sent to cover the story with the same disregard as journalists from their own government-controlled newspapers.

But Singapore's leaders were simply overwhelmed by press interest in what they saw as a routine caning. The Ministry of Information and the Arts, which handled the official response to criticism of Fay's sentence, patiently presented its guidelines. If you have a question, fax it to us. If you don't get a response, that means "No comment." Want an interview with the prime minister? Don't we all! Interested in details of Fay's caning? We'll get back to you.

A few days after submitting a written request to interview some top police officials, I surprised the press officers by appearing in person to check on its status. They said they'd let me know. I waited a few more days, hoping to demonstrate that I was well-mannered. When I returned a second time, they looked as if they'd seen a ghost.

Singapore officials and many of the former British colony's 2.8 million residents seemed amused by our interest in Fay, who was charged with 53 counts of vandalism. But there were also important lessons to be learned: After weeks of relentless coverage, it finally began to register with the country's president, prime minister and 81 Parliament members that Western reporters don't give up when told information isn't available. They just find other sources.

ýven then, press officers waited two days after the caning before refuting widely reported charges by Fay's parents that Michael had suffered horrifically. His mother, tears welling in her eyes, called the caning tortureÐalthough she hadn't witnessed it and had yet to see her son.

Were the Fays exaggerating? How much did Michael Fay actually suffer? We'll probably never know, and at the time it was difficult to assess. The government's delay allowed, in the words of New York Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, "the most extreme version put out by the other side to become Gospel."

Still, in Henican's view, the controversy played to a draw. The Singapore authorities showed themselves to be relatively quick studies of media relations. "You could see as we went on how their reactions changed," Henican says. "They came to understand if you don't put out a story, [the other side's] story is the one that prevails."

Ironically, the Singapore government, through its Singapore Press Holdings, has a lot of experience with putting spin on a story. They just seldom see counterspin . For Singapore's government-controlled papers, the New Paper and the Straits Times, the caning was not big news. The New Paper's reporters, for instance, were late to and missed both a public statement by Fay's mother after the caning and an earlier report by the teen's lawyer following a visit hours before the punishment.

The same tardiness caused some problems for the government. CNN ran a clip, for instance, of Fay's mother saying he was going to be deported, a statement that proved to be untrue. But it might never have been broadcast had the government promptly responded to inquiries.

In response to written questions from AJR, press officer Jean Tan explained that Singapore authorities do not release information about prisoners because they want to "safeguard" the privacy of their charges. In the Fay case, "given the intensity of media interest," the ministry made exceptions.

The government insists that shouldn't indicate a change in policy, and why should it? The last big story to hit Singapore was unofficial reunification talks held last year between China and Taiwan.

"The Singapore government," wrote Tan, "is not a contestant in a popularity contest conducted by the U.S. media."

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