NAC, defender of government legitimacy – confessing without a beating?

NAC entrance logo WikipediaBy Howard Lee

One can only wonder what was going through the minds of the people at the National Arts Council when they decided to withdraw the the publishing funds for Sonny Liew’s graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; and to add salt to the wound, justified it by saying that the book “potentially undermines the legitimacy of the Singapore government”.

Sonny Liew had put together a collection of cartoons “showcasing the life and work of Chan Hock Chye”, known as a “pioneer in graphic art in Singapore”. Some parts of the book depicted certain historical aspects of Singapore, some in which he apparently sketched former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his compatriot from the ruling People’s Action Party of the 1960s, Lim Chin Siong.

In withdrawing the grant, NAC did not specify to Liew or his publisher, Edmund Wee from Epigram Books, on which specific part of the collection they found to have breached the funding guidelines. We also understand that the complete draft of the book was previously shown to NAC prior to the approval of the grant.

Mr Khor Kok Wah, senior director of the NAC’s literary arts sector, had earlier attempted to justify the withdrawal by referring to “sensitive content” within the book. “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines,” he told media subsequently. “The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

According to media reports, the application guidelines for the grant state that NAC reserves the right to withdraw funding for reasons such as “illegal or negligent acts that occur during any point of the funded project, which will adversely affect the reputation of the National Arts Council, any government bodies, public institutions, national leaders or (the applicant’s) organisation”.

cchcNAC, defender of government legitimacy, or its own?

The lack of clarity in NAC’s explanation could not have been more stark. From the National Library Board during the Penguingate saga, to the Media Development Authority during the amendments to the Broadcasting Act, our government agencies seem to take a certain pride in throwing out obfuscated statements that do little to clarify the situation, but do more instead to dig a deeper hole.

For a start, what is NAC’s role? NAC’s stated mission is to “nurture the arts and make it an integral part of the lives of the people of Singapore”. Its strategic trusts to help it do so include “promoting the arts for self-expression, learning and reflection; shaping our cultural development through the arts; and developing a sustainable environment that enables the arts to entertain, enrich and inspire”.

If any of the above states that NAC is supposed to be the defender of the current government’s legitimacy, I must have missed the fine print somewhere.

NAC’s stated mission and strategic thrusts are correct, but its actions does not seem to tally with its professed beliefs. If anything, what needs defending is not the government legitimacy, but the agency’s own. Of what use is an government agency that professes to nurture the arts, but does not even allow the boundaries that artists wish to push?

Art of Charlie Chan Hock ChaiWhat was “sensitive”, and why didn’t NAC see it earlier?

Indeed, where specifically has The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye run afoul of the grants? Was it really to do with its depiction of Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, as no doubt many are now guessing? What did it say about the rule of the PAP government? Did it unfairly criticise the Internal Security Department? Was it another “revisionist” account of Operations Coldstore or Spectrum? Is there anything in Singapore that resembles artistic license anymore?

Coming on the tail of a proposal to implement lèse majesté law to protect the good name of Lee Kuan Yew, NAC’s move stinks of an attempt to nuke the farm before the weed killer arrives.

NAC has thus far not justified what it was in the book that could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the PAP government, leaving the public guessing about what Liew did to contravene the “funding guidelines published online and well known among the arts community”. Statements like “retelling of Singapore’s history in the work” is an odd statement to make – does it refer to the whole book, since it is technically a historical account, albeit a fantasy one?

In fact, if Liew and Wee have previously submitted the complete book to NAC as part of the grant-approval process, why didn’t NAC find grounds to pick on the offensive parts while evaluating the book? Must it wait for the book to be published, printed and on the shelves, before it chooses to withdraw the grant, forcing the publisher to use stickers to delete NAC’s involvement?

Sorry state of political affairs

As a government agency, NAC is beholden to the people. It will not serve the people by trying to defend the legitimacy of the government, much less try to impose any form of authority that it does not deserve.

If anything, the fact that NAC could even muster the gall to produce such a statement goes to show how impoverished we have become as a democracy, and how this impoverished state is rubbing off on our creative spaces.

The PAP is the current government of Singapore, not the eternal one. The legitimacy of any government is won at the polls, by the trust that the people park with it, and not dictated by what a government agency – as much in service to the people – thinks needs to be protected.

As it is, NAC’s actions are causing copies of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to fly off the shelves (or perhaps that is NAC’s real intention), probing an ever-increasingly curious population to try and find out what all the controversy is about. Ironically, NAC’s effort to defend the legitimacy of the government has piqued precisely the opposite reaction. Well done, NAC – and perhaps, faith in government legitimacy restored.

Copies of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye have been completely sold out in TOC Ltd’s book village, but is still available for backorder on our e-store. We will be restocking as soon as possible, so if you have made your order, please give us about two weeks to get it to you.

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