Internationally acclaimed comic artist Sonny Liew has urged the National Arts Council (NAC), a Government body, to revise the way it distributes funds. The NAC, a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, provides funding infrastructure for Singapore’s art community.
Mr Liew, a Singaporean, made the call for NAC to revise its funding practices on Saturday (13 June) as he spoke at the Workers’ Party Youth Wing’s (WPYW) latest webinar on Singapore’s future in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the topic of whether the arts would remain prominent in Singapore society post-COVID, Mr Liew said he did not think so since most Singaporeans view the arts as a luxury and not an essential.
Calling for a change in the attitudes of the Government and society towards the role and development of the arts here, Mr Liew asserted that the NAC should be an independent organisation and that it should change the way it distributes funds.
Mr Liew has firsthand experience with NAC funding issues. His graphic novel, ‘The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’ which charts the life and career of a fictional comic book artist and tells the story of the formative years of Singapore’s modern history and the history of comics, is an acclaimed piece of work that was shunned by the Government.
Shortly before the book’s release in Singapore, the NAC abruptly withdrew its grant of S$8,000 for the title, citing “sensitive content” and its potential to “undermine the authority and legitimacy” of the government.
The comic became the best-selling local fiction title that year and went on to make bestseller lists at Amazon and The New York Times, which is unprecedented for a Singaporean graphic novel.
Besides winning the Singapore Literature Prize, it also won the Book of the Year accolade at the Singapore Book Awards in 2016. It was awarded the Pingprisen for Best International Comic in 2017.
At the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, Sonny Liew and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won three Eisner Awards — Best Writer/Artist, Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Asia, and Best Publication Design. It was also nominated for three other Eisner Awards — Best Letterer, Best Colorist, and Best Graphic Album – New.
Cultural Medallion recipient T Sasitharan seconded Mr Liew’s appeal that there should be a fundamental change in the way the Government and Singapore society view the arts and urged Singapore to institute an “Arts council that is truly for the Arts” and not “an extension of government bureaucracy,” at the WPYW webinar.
Mr Sasitharan has also had unfavourable experiences with the NAC. In 2016, Mr Sasitharan made public comments about how the NAC has censored local art works for the sake of the Government’s image instead of censoring works for the good of society.
Speaking on behalf of the Arts Engage network of Singapore, which involves a number of local artists, the prominent arts icon said: “Our website also documents cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society’s good. Perhaps it is fitting to remember here that arts funding is not the Government’s but the people’s money.”
Workers’ Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera asked ruling party politician Baey Yam Keng whether he agrees with Mr Sasitharan’s view, in Parliament. Mr Baey, who is one of the deputy ministers responsible for the NAC, confirmed that NAC funding comes with the condition that the art work does not put “public institutions” in a bad and derogatory light.
Commenting on his exchange with Mr Baey, Mr Perera said in 2016: “I think once we withhold public funding for the arts because the art work embarrasses the government of the day and national leaders, even if it is for a handful of cases, we are on a slippery slope towards the use of public funds in a partisan political manner as opposed to Singapore’s national interest.
“Those few cases where funding was denied could have a disproportionate effect on other artists, encouraging them to self-censor. To produce good art, Singaporean artists should be able to exercise their artistic gifts in relation to the totality of social life, including public institutions, and without fear or favour. In my view, public arts funding should not be given on condition that there be no critique of the powers that be.
“Rather, it should be used to promote nothing but the good of Singapore and Singaporean art.”