In the latest issue of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, an editorial entitled, "A point of view and a rationale" by Toh Hsien Min brought up the issue of the fund withdrawal by the National Arts Council (NAC) from The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, the comic book which won three Eisner awards on 21 July this year. Toh wrote that in the real world, funding comes with conditions, and if artists are not happy with the conditions set by whichever organisation is offering funding, the only real option is to decline that funding.
"Consider a scenario whereby an artist or arts group accepts money from say an online shopping platform, and then puts up a play or an installation piece that trashes the company's delivery. Wouldn't that company quickly pull funding?
Yet the NAC may be the only organisation funding the arts whose grant recipients routinely expect to have no stake in the outcomes. Often this position hides behind some mutterings about public monies, in full confidence that no one would actually run a survey among the public crowds of Bedok and Woodlands as to whether their works should be funded.
Meanwhile, in the real world, funding comes with conditions, and if artists are not happy with the conditions set by whichever organisation is offering funding, the only real option is to decline that funding."
Commenting on the editorial which he disagreed with, Award-winning playwright Alfian Sa'at wrote on his Facebook page that there are many questions that are left unaddressed when 'funding comes with conditions'.
1) First of all, we ask whether those conditions are reasonable in the first place. Do we think it is fair to discriminate against those whose political views do not meet state approval? There is at least 30% of the population that did not vote for the PAP in the last election. How do you ensure that their needs are met, assuming that a government has the responsibility to serve all citizens, and not only those who voted them in?
I think you do this by not restricting avenues for their voices to be heard, and for them to receive ideas that are similar to their own. By not favouring one political viewpoint over another, and by letting artistic criteria be the primary determinant of funding. The fact that Charlie Chan has won not only the Singapore Literature Prize but the Eisner means that its artistic credentials are beyond reproach.
There are conditions that I have no problems with – you don't have to fund the works that are obscene, full of gratuitous violence, that traffics in hate speech, no matter the artistic merit. But political content should not be part of the criteria. Because then what we have is a broadly worded provision that can be used to operationalise the prejudices of politicians.
Consider this scenario: a minister or a perm sec can pick up the phone and tell the NAC that he or she is not happy with a certain artist. And demands that this person is penalised somehow, through the withholding or withdrawing of financial support and by putting this artist on a blacklist. As long as we have these 'political' clauses in the funding conditions, we leave the door wide open for this kind of abuse.
2) Second we ask to what extent is the work to be funded damaging to the funding body? The example given in the editorial is of an artist 'trashing' the delivery system of a certain online company. In what way has Charlie Chan, the graphic novel, trashed the NAC?
Even if one insists that the NAC is not an independent body and is a government organ, there needs to be some convincing explanation of how the work "potentially undermines the authority of the Government". What is this weird term, 'potentially'? Either a work undermines the government's authority or it does not.
I've read Charlie Chan from cover to cover. It is critical of some of the things that the PAP as well as Lee Kuan Yew did. But is 60's PAP and Lee Kuan Yew 'the government' of the day? And even if the work is critical, it cites from multiple sources and is also, contrary to the impression created by the hoo-hah, a balanced work. It is hardly agit-prop literature.
3) The third thing I want to address is that mention of 'public money'. The issue is not about consulting the persons on the street in Bedok and Woodlands about whether artists' works should be funded, the implication being that public money can be funneled elsewhere (probably to non-arts projects).
The real issue here, given that there is *already* public money set aside to be disbursed to worthy arts projects, is: do Bedok man or Woodlands woman find Charlie Chan deserving of a grant? Do they find the book intellectually stimulating, aesthetically accomplished, etc?
Or do they endorse the government stand that public money should only go to those with kosher political views, the way that upgrading should only be rewarded to HDB blocks in PAP wards, or academic tenure should only be reserved for those who praise or do not criticise the state?
To follow the principle of 'don't bite the hand that feeds you' to its logical end is to agree that the government should deny scholarships, jobs and even places in the universities to anyone they see as a dissenter. If we think that this is unjust, why then think that it's fair game when it comes to arts funding?
I think it's very easy to say that one should remain independent, look for alternative sources of funding and not be compromised by NAC money into self-censorship. But then you leave these fundamental issues – such as the politicisation of arts funding in Singapore – unexamined.
The author of "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye", Sonny Liew soon chimed into the discussion on the matter via a Facebook post noting how NAC works under certain constraints and that more dialogue is needed on the matter.
Liew wrote that "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" was initially supposed to be funded by the MDA as part of a bigger grant to produce 5 Graphic Novels (Koh Hong Teng & Oh Yong Hwee's "10 Sticks and One Rice" amongst the others). One criteria they had however was that the books had to be completed within a year.
We tried to write to them to explain how the scope and length of the book had grown, and needed more time to complete, but they never seemed able to process this information. The portion of the MDA grant for CCHC was withdrawn, which led to Epigram books applying for an NAC grant to find replacement funds etc.
I don't think there was anything malicious in the MDA's decisions - they just had their rules and requirements. But they never did fully explain to us why the time requirements were so strict (accounting cycles, perhaps?), nor have they been willing to discuss the matter subsequently.
Does this mean that all works funded by the MDA will face this rather odd requirement? That any project that grows in scope as it is developed and needs more time will not be supportable within the MDA's framework?
As with the NAC, these are things that could be improved on, or at least understood better, with more dialogue.
Finally: for those who argue that private funding is the key - there's some truth to that. But it's also a position with numerous flaws, including:
- the assumption that all works/projects of artistic merit will also be commercially viable;
- the assumption that privately funded works/projects will then be free of intervention from the authorities.
Plays require performance licenses, movies need to be rated, books can still be subject to sales restrictions - aside from grants, it seems to be a bit naive to think that authorities seek to exercise influence over the arts just because it's "tax payers money" (itself a problematic argument), and not because that influence is something that matters in and of itself.
So: More Dialogue, Better Communication, it's the way of all relationships, I guess.
Alfian then replied in Liew's comment thread,
Yah that comparison between NAC and a private entity is really off lah. And actually I don't think that the people urging artists to look for private patronage (Calvin Cheng is another one) have really thought through how, unless you get really enlightened patrons who feel a certain responsibility to the public and public diversity, you will end up with a lot of art that eventually reflects the partisan tastes of the benefactors. And you have to ask why should the economic elites be allowed to monopolise and eventually shape the arts scene? They can be even more censorious than the state, especially if for them arts patronage is an extension of brand-building and PR.