Just over 16 years ago, American teenager Michael Fay was caned four times at Queenstown Remand Prison in Singapore after pleading guilty to vandalism.
The case thrust the tighly-controlled city-state into the international limelight (see Asiaweek story from 1994) but despite (or because of) pleas for clemency from U.S. President Bill Clinton and many other quarters, the government was unwilling to make any exceptions to its draconian justice system.
Now Oliver Fricker, a 32-year-old Swiss software consultant, may force Singapore to relive the Michael Fay debate after being charged with trespass and vandalism for allegedly spray-painting a train alongside a British accomplice who has fled the city-state.
Fricker has been released on bail and will next appear in court on June 21. If convicted, he faces a fine of up to S$2,000 ($1,424), up to three years in jail and three to eight strokes of the cane.
The case, which was the first time a Singapore train has ever suffered a graffiti attack according to the Straits Times, has attracted significant international press attention, particularly in Switzerland and Britain. It has also been big news in Singapore, where the state-controlled media has reported it as a major security lapse.
Fricker's trial will no doubt be closely watched, with particular focus on whether or not the judge opts to have the defendant caned if he is found guilty.
Stern Singapore has come a long way since 1994 and, although it still scraps with foreign journalists and human rights experts, it prefers to promote a softer global image these days as an open, creative business and leisure hub.
If Fricker is found guilty and caned, it would undo a lot of the careful international public relations work carried out by the People's Action Party-led regime, placing Singapore visibly in the ranks of oddball states. Swiss embassy official Peter Zimmerli said his government would not interfere in the case but noted that "certain punishments such as corporal punishment are foreign to Swiss legal conception".
Errant Singaporeans and Asian migrant workers regularly face corporal and capital punishment but the sad reality is that these cases attract little or no attention in the wider world.
A decision to spare Fricker the rod (if found guilty) would provoke the ire of many Singaporeans who already feel that Western expats get an easy ride when they commit such misdemeanours.
There has been significant disquiet on Singaporean blogs and message boards over recent cases in which Western expats (both Brits) escaped prison in Singapore for (variously) drunkenly stealing a truck and driving it down Orchard Road and stealing thousands of dollars from someone else's bank account.
It will be interesting to see what happens.