NAC withdrawing $8000 grant for Sonny Liew’s graphic novel

From ‘NAC withdraws grant for graphic novel publisher due to ‘sensitive’ content’, 30 May 2015, article in CNA

The National Arts Council (NAC) has withdrawn a publishing grant for the graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on the eve of its Singapore launch because of “sensitive content”. The council declined to elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to revoke the S$8,000 grant.

The experimental graphic novel by artist-illustrator Sonny Liew follows the story of comic-book artist Charlie Chan during the formative years of Singapore’s modern history. It weaves together fictional and historical elements, with nods to events and personalities in the nation’s history, such as Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, opposition politician Lim Chin Siong and Operation Spectrum, the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, in 1987.

In a statement, NAC’s senior director of the literary arts sector Khor Kok Wah said: “We had to withdraw the grant when the book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye came out because its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions. The Council will continue to support and work with Epigram, a leading publisher of Singapore literary works, on other projects.”

…Mr Liew expressed his disappointment with NAC’s decision. “I’d hoped the book was nuanced enough in … dealing with the issues. But developments have made it clearer that NAC works under constraints that make it difficult for it to support works that are deemed politically sensitive.”

In 2011, the NAC withdrew a grant for a volume of playwright Chong Tze Chien’s collected plays, which had included Charged, a play that dealt with national service and race.

According to the Funding Guidelines, NAC will reject works that appear to have a ‘negative influence on society’, those that advocate for lifestyles that are seen as ‘objectionable’ by the public, denigrate on the basis of race or religion, undermine the authority of the government or threaten the nation’s security or stability. In Charlie Chan, Operation Spectrum is satirised as a plot to ‘replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of Richard Marx’, which gives a new, rather ominous twist to the lyrics of his greatest hit ever, Right Here Waiting (wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you). Not only will this ‘indirect censorship’ boost sales of Sonny’s book, it will also draw audiences to rediscover the adult contemporary music genius that is Richard Marx.

A more extreme parallel to Charlie Chan would be the charges slapped on fellow cartoonist Leslie Chew, the mastermind behind ‘Demon-cratic Singapore’. But I would think another reason why the depiction of LKY in a comic book is considered ‘too sensitive’ for funding is probably because of recent discussions to make it illegal for anyone to commercialise the image of our great leader for personal gain. I wouldn’t be surprised if MDA goes around pasting black boxes over panels of Charlie Chan containing references to LKY or the Marxist insurgency. The way around that, of course, is to order the unedited ‘US version’, or head over to the Causeway to buy it, along with a DVD for ‘To Singapore, with Love‘, which would neatly serve as a ‘behind the scenes’ companion to Charlie Chan if you want to know more about that fog of Singapore history known as Operation Spectrum.

Interestingly, Chong Tze Chien, the other victim of NAC’s sudden withdrawal was featured on the organisation’s publication titled ‘Literary Singapore’. The ‘directory’ of writers describes the play ‘Charged’ as such:

Through his signature use of experimental and innovative puppetry and stage devices, Chong’s “Charged” is Singapore’s most controversial and nuanced political play to date – addressing the issue of racial tensions in the most explosive of scenarios – that of a Chinese corporal shooting his Malay counterpart while on military duty.

And then NAC decided: Hmm, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea supporting this after all, I want my money back. What was once lauded as a ‘most controversial’ portrayal of race relations becomes a ‘taboo’ overnight. One moment you’re giving yourself a pat on the back for a ‘progressive’ stance, and the next you’re hurriedly taking it back, like ‘modern’ parents having second thoughts about giving their 18 year old son the car keys before his big date, afraid that they may have to pay an abortion check later. Incidentally, ‘Charged’ won the ‘BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT’ at the 11th Life! Theatre Awards.

I suppose one has to be prepared to make a living the hard way if your grant doesn’t qualify because your book or script is too provocative by NAC standards and may spark a mass riot like Charlie Hebdo. If only they’d told you sooner though. MDA did the same last-minute about turn when they banned Ken Kwek’s Sex Violence Family Values when it was just about to premiere in local cinemas. You could say the authorities were ‘right there waiting’ before deciding to pull the plug.

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