Sonny Liew’s win, and the shameful silence from the Government & National Arts Council

Sonny Liew’s win, and the shameful silence from the Government & National Arts Council
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Back in February this year, panellists at a public forum called for more “naysayers” in Singapore, those who would speak truth to power.

“They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders, and the reticence of university students in asking questions at conferences,” the Straits Times reported then.

Among the panellists was Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large, and chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC).

Prof Chan “called for more robust internal discussions on policies with a wider range of people from different backgrounds”, the Straits Times said.

“We need naysayers in leadership teams who can think the unthinkable,” the chairman of the NAC said.

Rewind almost 2 years to June 2015. This headline appeared in the papers:

St, 2015

“The National Arts Council (NAC) has come out to say that it pulled a $8,000 grant from a local graphic novel because the comic’s content “potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the Singapore Government.”

That graphic novel is, of course, the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by Sonny Liew. The book is a retelling of Singapore’s history through the eyes of a fictional character.

The NAC spokesman at the time said that the grant had been withdrawn because “its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions”.

Later, he explained:

“The retelling of Singapore’s history in the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions and thus breaches our funding guidelines, which are published online and are well known in the arts community.”

“Applications (for NAC grants) are assessed on their artistic merit, but any proposed content should not infringe funding guidelines,” the spokesman said in a letter in the Today newspaper.

In essence, the NAC claimed that the comic book would cause perhaps irreparable damage to Singapore society by undermining the authority of the government and our public institutions.

So much for “[needing] naysayers in leadership teams who can think the unthinkable.”

Some members of the NAC

The words of the NAC chairman, that we need to support people who think not like everyone else, sounds hollow now.

Charlie Chan has gone on to win international accolade. It has been featured and named as one of the world’s best comic works by various publications, including The Economist and The Washington Post. It had also climbed to the top of the bestseller lists for Amazon and The New York Times.

In Singapore, it won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016, the first graphic novel to do so.

On Saturday, it crowned its worldwide recognition by winning 3 Eisner Awards, the comics world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. The win made Sonny Liew the first Singaporean ever to win an Eisner. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye itself had been nominated for an unprecedented 6 awards.

You would think that such an incredible achievement, not unlike the Olympian one of Joseph Schooling, would have the authorities here, and in particular those in charge of the arts, jumping up and down with pride.

But no.

Not a squeak – neither from the prime minister who has always been quick to offer his congratulations to Singaporeans who have done well overseas, nor from the National Arts Council or its chairman, Prof Chan, who had only 5 months ago waxed so lyrical about how we “need naysayers”, about people who would think differently.

So too the ministers, especially the one in charge of the Arts, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Grace Fu. Nothing on her Facebook page. Needless to say, the Members of Parliament (MPs) too are quiet. Where is Baey Yam Keng, the Parliamentary Secretary at MCCY who is seen as sympathetic to artists?

Even our President, who is supposed to be above all politics, has not said a word to acknowledge Sony Liew’s momentous achievement.

Seems everyone has buried his head and golden mouth in the sand. It is as though they have been greatly inconvenienced and embarrassed by Sonny Liew’s time in the limelight.

“No, MPs won’t welcome Sonny at Changi Airport, there won’t be a victory parade, and the Prime Minister won’t laud him in his National Day Rally Speech,” said Cherian George on his Facebook page. He is a former academic at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

George is now Director, Centre for Media and Communication Research at the Hong Kong Baptist University, School of Communication.

“Never mind,” he added. “This is still a great moment for Singapore art. Sonny’s novel is steeped in Singapore history and culture, and proves you can be uncompromisingly local and still be a world-beater. Thanks Sonny Liew for blowing our minds!”

Unlike the government, many ordinary Singaporeans have expressed their pride and appreciation to Sonny Liew online. It is indeed an occasion to be proud to be Singaporean.

After all, how often does a Singaporean win an Academy Award, or an Olympic medal?

Sonny’s feat is no less important or of less merit than these.

What dismays many is how an “arts council” could cut loose an artist who was doing honest work, kicked him off the boat and left him to struggle to keep his head above water.

What kind of “arts council” does this?

And then when the artist manages to survive, and goes on to do the seemingly impossible, the same “arts council” buries its head in the sand, pretending that the artist no longer exists, nevermind what he has achieved.

And at the same time, the “arts council” spouts some high-sounding drivel about how we need more “naysayers”.

If Sonny Liew’s case shows us anything, it is this: public servants need to have the balls to tell the emperors up there – the big ones, the little ones and the wannabes – to get lost if they should try to bring politics into their decision-making.

It is completely shameful that the NAC, which is supposed to support the arts and artists, made itself subservient to selfish political dictates. Perhaps if those in the NAC want to be involved in political decisions, they should contest in elections and get elected first.

Otherwise, please have some backbone, and not spout empty words that have no substance or meaning. Don’t talk big when you can’t practise what you preach. Yes, I am referring to you, Prof Chan.

Perhaps the NAC should remember what Prof Chan’s fellow panellist, Tommy Koh, said at the same event in February.

“When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That’s the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker.”

Singaporeans are and should be proud of Sonny Liew and his work, even if the stupid bureaucrats are not.

And do continue to support Sonny Liew and the book. You can purchase it here.