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A `Papa Knows Best' Approach to Order in Singapore

AS your Singapore Airlines plane descends through the clouds to home base, your flight attendant comes on the intercom to wish you a pleasant stay - and remind you that drug dealing in Singapore is punishable by death. Next comes the immigration form: ``Welcome to Singapore - Death for drug trafficking under Singapore law.''

Thus one is welcomed to one of the most successful, and suddenly one of the most controversial, countries in Asia.

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For Americans, and indeed many people around the world, Singapore has leapt into the headlines because of the case of Michael Fay, the American teenager convicted of vandalism and sentenced to a fine, a prison term, and six lashes with a bamboo cane.

It is the caning, or flogging, that has captured interest. President Clinton has appealed for clemency and termed the punishment by caning excessive. Former President Bush, visiting Singapore last week, said he believed that a nation's laws should be applied to foreigners and natives without difference. ``When you are in somebody else's country, you should respect the law of that country.'' he said. Americans are divided. Though some are protesting the flogging, much of the mail reaching the American embassy here from the United States says Mr. Fay should undergo the penalty.

In part that seems an expression of the frustration many Americans feel about the extent of vandalism and crime at home, and the failure of various governmental authorities to cope with it.

There is not much question that Singapore's strict approach to preserving law and order has paid off. Capital punishment is mandatory for drug trafficking and armed robbery. The police swiftly pluck serious criminals off the streets, making them safe for citizens and visitors to walk at any time of day and night. Even minor infractions like littering and jaywalking are pounced upon.

All this makes for a relatively crime-free and spotless city-state, which in a few decades has evolved from a rather sleepy former British colony to one of the most vibrant manufacturing and trading centers in Asia. Singapore is booming. Its 2.8 million people have the highest standard of living in Asia, after Japan.

In the heart of the city there are a few reminders of British rule - some government buildings, the Anglican cathedral, and the sprawling Raffles hotel, which conjures up visions of Somerset Maugham - but sleek modern skyscrapers soar upward, and construction crews are throwing up new buildings to house more banks and investment houses and expensive shops to cater to Singapore's affluent citizens. The airport is one of the grandest in Asia, if not the world. The highways are without a scrap of trash or litter, and in the little parks, gardeners are perpetually weeding, clipping, sweeping.

To the inhabitants of some rundown, crime-beset, battle-scarred US cities, it must sound like paradise. But this order comes as a result of a conscious decision to place higher priority on the well-being of society as a whole than on the rights of individuals. Thus Singapore is a kind of papa-knows-best society, where magazines are ``approved'' for display, where the content of films and television programs is censored, where newspaper editors tread carefully.

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``Papa'' is Lee Kuan Yew, the brilliant Chinese lawyer-politician who has been the driving force behind Singapore's growth and success. Though he has stepped down from the prime ministership, as Senior Minister his influence remains paramount. When he speaks, Singapore listens. I myself have been listening to Mr. Lee on-and-off for 30 years. He has become increasingly critical of the Western press; right now he is scathing US society because of its lawlessness. America, he says, ``dares not restrain or punish individuals, forgiving them for whatever they've done. That's why the whole country is in chaos. Drugs, violence, unemployment, and homelessness.'' Singapore's stand, he says, is ``that the government must protect society,'' otherwise there will be chaos.

There have been some very unattractive examples in history of regimes that placed efficiency and order above the rights of individuals. And flogging is hardly an acceptable answer to America's crime problems. But there may be a lesson or two for Americans in the Singapore experience.

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