Michael Fay was an eighteen-year-old American citizen found guilty of vandalism in Singapore and sentenced to be caned. The opinion piece in The New York Times "Time to Assert American Values" argues that President Clinton was correct to call for a pardon for Mr. Fay, and that principled Americans should do whatever they can to pressure the Singaporean government to cancel his punishment.
The arguments in favor of Michael Fay being punished by caning are these. Mr. Fay committed a crime in a foreign country, and he should be tried under that country's legal system and face their punishment for that crime. Different countries have different attitudes, and, as Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader of Singapore, puts it, "in Asia ... the good of society is deemed more important than individual liberties." It is arrogant of Americans to think that they know better and their cultural attitudes are universally applicable.
The arguments against the caning are as follows. The dissidents and reformers in Asian countries who are subjected to harsh punishments ought to be regarded as just as representative of those societies as the leaders who impose the punishments. America was founded by dissidents, and their values are worth defending internationally. Brutal punishments like caning ought not to exist anywhere. This is the argument favored by The New York Times.
There are some obvious counter-arguments to the position taken by The New York Times (Michael Fay is not a dissident, and the United States of America itself has capital punishment), but these are not addressed in the article.