Veteran Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh urged Government leaders to welcome criticism as long as the critic loves Singapore, as he spoke at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference yesterday (1 Oct).
Dr Koh currently serves as Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore. A distinguished diplomat, he has served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Ambassador to the United States of America, High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico.
At the Singapore Bicentennial Conference, Dr Koh recounted how former foreign minister S. Rajaratnam suggested to founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew that they appoint David Marshall as Singapore’s ambassador to France.
Mr Lee was taken aback by the suggestion since Mr Marshall, Singapore’s first chief minister, was their political opponent as the head of the Workers’ Party. Years later, however, Mr Lee honoured Mr Rajaratnam for being magnanimous in victory.
Urging the ruling party’s fourth generation (4G) leaders to the same virtue Mr Rajaratnam exemplified, Dr Koh called on the Government to welcome criticism as long as the critic loves Singapore. He said:
“Guided by this virtue, the Government should not have banned Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love. It should not have withdrawn the book grants from Sonny Liew and Jeremy Tiang.
“Why? The contestation of ideas is a necessary part of democracy. We should therefore not blacklist intellectuals, artists, writers because they criticise the Government or hold dissenting views.”
Dr Koh asserted: “Singapore will languish if our lovers are uncritical and our critics are unloving. What Singapore needs is not sycophants but loving critics and critical lovers.”
The film and the books Dr Koh highlighted make depictions that deviates from the official narrative. Mr Tan’s 2013 film ‘To Singapore, With Love’, which revolves around political exiles, was banned in Singapore with the Media Development Authority claiming that the film undermined national security.
The decision was met with strong backlash from artists, academics and journalists – even a heavyweight journalist from the Straits Times – but the authority’s Film Appeals Committee refused to review the film’s ban.
While Singapore banned it, Mr Tan’s film has been met with international acclaim. The documentary won Mr Tan the best director award in the Muhr AsiaAfrica Documentary section at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival and the Best Asean Documentary at the Salaya International Documentary Festival.
Made with the support of the Asian Cinema Fund and the Busan International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere in competition, the film also screened at Malaysia’s FreedomFilmFest, the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum programme, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Seoul International Documentary Festival, Brazil’s It’s All True, Jogja-Netpac Film Festival, International Film Festival of Kerala, Diaspora Film Festival, Incheon and London’s SEA ArtsFest, where it enjoyed four sold-out screenings over two days.
Mr Liew’s 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 another acclaimed piece of work that was shunned by the Government.
Shortly before the book’s release in Singapore, the National Arts Council 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.
Mr Tiang faced a similar situation when the Government abruptly withdrew a grant it had given him for a book he was working on. In 2010, Mr Tiang’s idea for his first novel, titled State of Emergency, which depicts a family caught up in the leftist movements in Singapore’s biggest political controversies throughout history, qualified for a grant by the National Arts Council.
Under the Creation Grant Scheme, he would receive a total of S$12,000. It took him seven years to write the novel but when he submitted the first draft to the council in 2016, the remainder of the grant was withdrawn – he had received S$8,600 by then.
At that time, Mr Tiang was shocked as he was writing full-time and any additional money would be useful but decided to keep writing. His manuscript was subsequently shortlisted for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize where he received a cash prize of S$5,000.
In 2018, he won the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction for his novel. The Singapore Book Council which established and managed the Singapore Literature Prize said that Mr Tiang’s win was a “unanimous decision” by the judges. -/TISG