Controversial Singaporean graphic novel wins ‘Oscars’ of comic world

Singapore CNN  — 

A graphic novel about the history of Singapore stirred controversy before its publication, with a senior official in the city-state once warning that it could “potentially undermine the authority of legitimacy of the government and its public institutions.”

But the Singaporean artist behind the book, Sonny Liew, continues to receive international praise.

Last Friday, Liew and his graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” bagged three Eisner awards – Best Writer/Artist, Best Publication Design and Best US Edition of International Material in Asia. The Eisner Awards are often regarded as the Oscars of the comic world. The work was also named Best International Comic at Denmark’s Pingprisen Awards in June.

Telling a more inclusive story

Liew’s graphic novel has raised eyebrows in Singapore for featuring the country’s first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and a former opposition leader, Lim Chin Siong, as its main characters.

The story also retraces important – and controversial – historical events that helped shape the tightly controlled city-state, including the violent strikes and riots of 1955, the detention of left-wing politicians and trade unionists and the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987.

Two years ago, the National Art Council of Singapore (NAC) withdrew a previously approved 8,000 Singaporean dollar ($5,870) publishing grant for the novel, citing concerns over “sensitive content.” But in an official statement released on Monday, the agency congratulated Liew “on being the first Singaporean to bag three Eisner awards.”

The NAC also stated that although it had withdrawn the novel’s grant because its content “breached” its funding guidelines, Liew had continued to be supported in various other ways. “For example, he enjoys subsidized arts housing in the much sought-after Goodman Arts Centre,” the statement said.

Moving past controversy

“The book is essentially a history of Singapore told through the lens of a comic book artist called Charlie Chan,” Liew explained over the phone from San Diego. “And while at first it appears to be an ‘art of’ book with archival images of (Chan’s) work along with interviews and essays in comic form, the readers will discover it’s not quite what it seems.”

Beyond the political history, the novel is also a celebration of “comics as a medium,” full of witty allusions to famous works such as Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.”

Rather than trying to replace the “official” narrative of Singapore’s history, Liew said he wanted to tell a story that was “more inclusive and complex.”

“I think this (is what) potentially upset (the authorities), though they didn’t specify exactly what they were not happy with,” he said. “So all we can do is speculate about their reasons.”

Liew’s wins at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, have helped return the focus to the quality of his work. In its congratulatory statement, the NAC praised the “high artistic merit” of Liew’s novel.

Excerpt from "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" by Sonny Liew.

But the 42-year-old artist and author expressed concern that the attention attracted by the controversy is a double-edged sword.

“Without the (grant) withdrawal, the book wouldn’t have received the social media attention it got, and we wouldn’t have sold out the initial print run in a week,” the artist admitted. “But I wonder about the impact the controversy will have over the longer term, for example whether schools might be wary of recommending the book to students, or that people will assume the book is anti-government without having read it.”

Debate over funding

Liew is not the only Singaporean writer to have faced funding disputes with the NAC. The agency, according to the Straits Times, withheld part of a SG $12,000 ($8,800) grant to author Jeremy Tiang after he submitted a first draft of a novel about the leftist movement’s place in Singapore’s history.

In that same article, NAC had responded, acknowledging Tiang as “one of Singapore’s promising young fiction writers,” who had been supported by the NAC on various projects.

Although Singapore’s art community has enjoyed strong financial support from the government, some have argued that state funding has also be used as an instrument for censorship.

In a parliamentary exchange last year, lawmaker Baey Yam Keng acknowledged that “as part of the funding principles of the NAC, there is a requirement and understanding with the arts groups and the applicants that they should not put any public institutions in a bad light or put them in a derogatory position.”

But critics, like the director of Singapore International Festival of Arts, Keng Sen Ong, argue 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,” he said in an email.

“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.”

For Liew, the “wall of silence” from authorities has prevented open dialogue about Singapore’s history. He said that in the last two years, he has never been offered “a clear account from the government about what they think about the book, whether from the NAC or any other members of the ruling party.”

“I’d hoped the book would open things up, but I think it’s actually closed them a little bit.”

CNN has reached out to NAC for comment on claims about censorship and ties to art funding.