Awards won by graphic novel rekindles conversation on Singapore art funding that comes with strings attached

The winning of the three awards by graphic novelist Sonny Liew for his book, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” at the prestigious 29th annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards on 21 July, has not just brought pride and joy to Singaporeans but also revisits the issue of how art funding is being used by the government to shape the discourse or social space in Singapore.

Prior to the graphic novel’s much-acclaimed success and just before the peak of his recognition, the publication had its approved $8,000 publication grant withdrawn by the National Arts Council (NAC) under the reason of “sensitive content” depicted in the 324-page comic book.

For those who have not read the book, it uses different forms of comic illustration to depict the life of a Singaporean artist which spans across 60-odd years of Singapore history. Possibly troubling for the establishment, is the portrayal of Lim Chin Siong, a charismatic political leader who stood side by side with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the earlier days of Singapore pre-independence who was later detained without trial in 1963 under the Internal Security Act for unsubstantiated reasons. This and along with other various controversial fragments of the past, such as the 1987’s Operation Spectrum and the Hock Lee bus riots.

RECAP: Statement on withdrawal of funding for graphic novel

Prior to the publication of the book, NAC was shown a copy of the book and no major changes were made to the book prior to publishing, subsequently the grant was approved.

Credits found at the back of the book which had to be covered up by stickers after the withdrawal of the grant.

However, after publication, somehow, someone, something caused NAC to withdraw its earlier approved grant.

In response to earlier media queries, Mr Khor Kok Wah, senior director, literary arts sector, National Arts Council 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.” Mr Wah did not specify what these conditions were.

Subsequently in another letter, Mr Khor explained further by saying, “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,”

Artists should address the ethics of their funding

The public interpreted the withdrawal of the grant in two ways. One, the government wanted to use the book as an example for the artists to know what is permissible and what is not if they intend to get funding from the government. The other, which was raised during a forum with Liew at the AGORA by a teacher, is to indicate to the civil service that this book is a big no-no as educational material for students.

Following the awards presented to Liew, critically acclaimed artistic director of local theatre company, TheatreWorks, Ong Keng Sen made several comments on last Sunday in regards to the issue of restrictions placed upon artists in Singapore by the social-political space that is demarcated by the Singapore government.

Ong who is also the Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts running his fourth and last series of the SIFA wrote,

“We do have to face the reality that not all artists care about how the money they receive is stained. But this is also why artists should solve for themselves what is the ethics of their funding, before it is a top down directive. Artists need to put up a concerted front, engaging with our different viewpoints rather than pretend that there isn’t a problem. This is only the tip of the iceberg which may sink many ships in the next decade…

…Needless to say official institutions, financial institutions self-censor all the time to be on the ‘right’ side of politics but independent arts institutions are not above this, as funding has become more and more the opiate of the artists. Is it time for a town hall to be organized by and for independent artists to discuss what should be the baseline responsibility of the government and what is the funding which has strings attached to content?”

The above text was shared via two Facebook status update (here and here) and a call was made to share the text if the reader agrees with the content.

State funding should not be withheld from dissenting voices

Subsequently in an email interview with international news platform, CNN, Ong argues that state funding should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

“Arts funding should not be about supporting propaganda mouthpieces for the government but about supporting high-quality art, nurturing creative expressions to become deeply insightful, and inspiring new artists to produce the best art possible…

Anything that rocks the boat is already weeded out. I personally view art funding as becoming increasingly suspicious — we are told more and more that we should not bite the hand that feeds us. So perhaps we are being guided slowly towards become an echo chamber for the government…

The old philosophy was to promote art, while today there seems to be a shift to the ‘national’ project. The colossal tragedy is that in this seeming lack of transparency, the only strategy left is to self-censor for many artists.”

Government had no ground to stand on the withdrawal of grant

This is a call shared by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Leon Perera who raised the issue of the withdrawal of funding from Liew’s graphic novel in a Parliamentary sitting on March 2017.

Mr Perera said in Parliament,

“The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a wonderful Singapore graphic novel that has won many, many local and international awards over the past one-and-a-half years and, yet, the NAC withdrew its publishing grant, citing that, “…it’s re-telling of Singapore’s history potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions”.

Managing the arts sector in this way risks creating a climate of self-censorship and politicisation of the arts. In so doing, it reduces one liveability factor and makes Singapore that much less attractive as a home for all its people, regardless of political viewpoint.

The same survey that I cited showed 59% of Singaporeans valuing “being just and fair to all” and 52% valuing “being progressive”. I would like to urge the Government to remove political conditions attached to arts funding with exceptions solely for artworks that promote criminality, racial or religious tensions.”

Then- Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Baey Yam Keng gave a response that did not seem to answer Mr Perera’s questions and comments.

Mr Baey said:

“NAC funding guidelines are published and are part of the funding agreement between NAC and the grant applicants. NAC seeks to enlarge the space for the arts to flourish without compromising on social cohesion and stability. As such, NAC does not fund activities which undermine public institutions, political parties or figures regardless of political affiliation. We believe that confidence in public institutions is fundamental to the future of Singapore.”

With the government stance as such, it is no wonder NAC reluctantly congratulated Liew for winning the internationally acclaimed awards without even mentioning the title of the book.

In-feasibility of independent art foundation due to Government’s hand in cookie jar

One might think that one possible solution is to have an independent foundation to issue grants to artists with talents and aspirations so that they will not be limited by the OB markers by the government bodies. But that may not be so simple in Singapore’s context.

In an interview with TOC, Ong notes that the National Arts Council, the government, the arts industry are much involved together in the discussion of funding and the conditions of funding. Individuals are caught by the neck in a way through such discussion because it’s about a very essential need, which is funding to make things happen in this expensive city.

Ong thinks that the government should leave the arts completely and make everything into a free economy.

“You know that means that you don’t support anything. You can thrive or not thrive based on how you build up your economic resources yourself. There is no funding and hence no regulations.”

However, in doing so, Ong argues that the government should not compete with the independent arts group to get funding.

“Right now for most independent arts companies, our biggest competitor is the Arts Council, the National Arts Council which is getting the money. Most corporations want to be good corporate citizens. They’re not going to sponsor a small independent dance company. It is better to support let’s say, the whole festival or the dance programme or the national dance programme.”

“So it’s a very complicated space because on one level, funding is grabbed by the government, that means corporate funding is grabbed by the government and then after that, regulations are slapped on.”

Which is why Ong would prefer that the government does not grant funding for everything and then artists are completely free.

While Ong feels that it might be too scary of a proposition because it’s really kind of taking up the challenge, which is always presented to the arts scene as the survival of the fittest but it is a completely free economy without unfair competitions.

If the goal of the government is to develop a vibrant creative population that will bring Singapore to its next stage of development, then its goal is largely conflicted with its politically driven agenda to keep the mindset of its people within the OB markers. Especially if artists are expected to limit themselves to the perception of gate-keepers who are neither artistic inclined nor have a world-view, then the standard of art in Singapore will always be at the level, like Ong shared, where government funding will be safely granted and the artists learn to be contented with the sole-recognition from their pay masters.