Only months after a furor over the flogging of an American teenager here, the United States and Singapore may again be on a collision course, this time over the arrest of an American businessman on assault charges.
The case of the American teen-ager, Michael Fay, is linked to that of the businessman, Robert Freehill, a 51-year-old aerospace executive who has lived in Singapore for nine years.Freehill is the father of one of the teenagers arrested with Fay last fall and charged with spray-painting cars. But unlike Fay, who was jailed and lashed with a rattan cane, Freehill's 17-year-old son, Stephen, was allowed to leave Singapore after pleading guilty to lesser charges and paying a $535 fine.
The elder Freehill was arrested last month on charges ranging from using abusive language to assault, some of them dating to an incident in 1992. His case has alarmed other U.S. businessmen here who fear that it is part of a vendetta by the government against the United States, this nation's largest trading partner.
The State Department said Saturday that "we are following the case closely" and that "we expect Singaporean authorities to treat Freehill fairly and have made that view known to the government of Singapore." Freehill, who has denied the charges, is free on $6,700 bail. His passport has been impounded.
Asked whether U.S. business people living in Singapore had reason to be concerned for their status in a country once considered a close ally of the United States, a State Department spokesman in Washington said, "That is a decision that business representatives must make on their own."
In what appears to be the most serious charge against Freehill, he is accused of kicking the door of a car in December 1992 during a traffic scuffle, bruising the shin of the driver, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore.
Freehill is also accused of using abusive language to a police officer in May of this year, and of yelling a racial epithet at a Singaporean businessman, then pushing the businessman.
Grace Freehill, Freehill's wife, said in a telephone interview from the family's second home in Louisiana that the charges were a "total fabrication."
Businessmen and diplomats in Singapore said the charges appeared to be an effort to punish Freehill for the actions of his son, who returned to the United States after his release and has since given interviews in which he accused the Singapore police of brutality and of trying to railroad criminal suspects.
Stephen Freehill went free after it became clear that the government lacked the testimony that would be needed to proceed to trial on the more serious vandalism charges.