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Michael Fay


Country: Singapore

Arrested: September 1993

Status: Released


The Michael Fay case from 1994 has an important place in the history of ShowTrials because it was one of the first international criminal cases against an American that led to a media storm and high-level, bilateral diplomacy.  The whirlwind of media coverage created by his case generated strong public opinions, and intense discourse amongst a divided American public over whether Fay’s sentencing in Singapore was cruel and unusual, or appropriate and well-deserved.  Fay’s punishment was to include “caning,” a form of corporal punishment consisting of a number of hits with a single cane, applied to the offender’s bare buttocks.

President Clinton’s involvement in the matter ultimately led to a reduction in the sentence, but Fay was still subject to the corporal punishment.  Perhaps most noteworthy, the sense of “cause celebré” that surrounded this case has since become a commonplace characteristic of ShowTrials.  The Fay case represents an early demonstration that media and the public are drawn to the sensationalized details of cases such as this, and the high-profile media coverage that results creates a dynamic of power that can be used for strategic advantage.


Michael Fay was born in St. Louis, Missouri.  He lived with his father after his parents divorced when he was young, but he joined his mother and stepfather in Singapore as a teenager. 

In September 1993, over a ten-day period, eighteen cars were vandalized with red paint, eggs, and dents.  Police arrested Andy Shiu Chi. He was not caught vandalizing, but he was driving without a license in the area where the cars were being vandalized.  Chi was a sixteen-year-old Hong Kong student attending the Singapore American School.  The sixteen year old was interrogated for seven hours during which he gave the police the names of five boys he said were responsible for the vandalism, one of which was Michael Fay.

Case Report

After questioning Chi, police began questioning the students from Singapore American School.  Police searched eighteen-year old Fay’s bedroom without his parents present.   They found several flags and signs that had been stolen.

Several boys were held in police custody.  Most of the boys were released on bail after two days.  Fay however was held in custody for nine days.  It was during this time that he signed a confession statement.  Six boys in total were charged, including Fay, Chi, another American, two Malaysians, and an Australian boy. 

Fay faced a total of fifty-three charges, forty-five counts of vandalism, six counts of mischief, one count of retaining stolen property, and one count of possessing firecrackers.  On February 28, 1994, in front of the district court, Fay plead guilty to only five charges, two counts of vandalism, two counts of mischief, and one count of possessing stolen property.  He later denounced his confession during interviews saying he was coerced into confessing and that he was told if he confessed he would not be caned.

“The defense argued the paint used to vandalize cars was delible because it was easily and cheaply removed with solvents.  Judge F.G. Remedios decided that just because the graffiti was cheap to fix, paint is indelible.”

The 1966 Vandalism Act was originally enacted to reduce political graffiti of government property during Singapore’s fight for independence.  The law mandates three to eight strokes of the cane for each count, but first offenders can avoid caning “if the writing, drawing, mark or inscription is done with pencil, crayon, chalk, or other delible substances and not with paint, tar or other indelible substances.”  Indelibility became central to the case.  The defense argued the paint used to vandalize cars was delible because it was easily and cheaply removed with solvents.  Judge F.G. Remedios decided that just because the graffiti was cheap to fix, paint is indelible.  Fay was sentenced to four months in jail, six strokes of the cane, and a fine of $2,214.  The caning was for the two vandalism charges and the fine was for the mischief and possessing stolen property.  He was acquitted of the remaining charges.

On March 31, 1994 Fay’s appeal was heard in the High Court, but was dismissed by the chief justice.  Exhausting all legal routes, Fay petitioned the Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong for clemency from caning.

Fay’s sentence drew major media attention in the U.S.  President Clinton called the punishment extreme.  He pressured the Singapore government to grant clemency from caning.  Twenty-four U.S. senators sent a letter to the Singapore government also appealing for clemency. 

On May 4, 1994 the Singapore government announced the Cabinet had recommended to President Ong that Fay’s caning be reduced to four stokes as a gesture of respect for President Clinton.  On May 5 Fay received four strokes of the cane.  He served eighty-three days in Queenstown Remand Prison.  He was released early on June 21, 1994 for good behavior. 


In June of 1994 Fay moved back to the U.S to live with his father after he was released.  He gave several interviews with U.S. media outlets stating he was advised to plead guilty because it would preclude him from caning.  He stated his confession was coerced during a police beating.  He admitted to stealing signs, but stated he never vandalized cars. 

Months after his return, Fay struggled with substance abuse.  He was admitted to the Hazelden rehabilitation program for butane abuse.  He said sniffing butane “made him forget what happened in Singapore.”