A Richard Marxist Conspiracy

Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

It looks like I might be wrong.

Two months ago, I wrote that the late Lee Kuan Yew was “the only Singaporean who had something genuinely interesting to say and the unfettered confidence to speak it loudly”. At the time, there was something bubbling away in the basement: Sonny Liew (Malaysian-born, Singapore citizen) was very close to pushing out his oddball opus The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. This graphic novel treats the reader to a meandering, colorful and dense account of Singapore’s political history as seen through the eyes of a talented, struggling and fictitious local cartoonist, Charlie Chan. The book is bold and sometimes unsubtle in its caricature of Singapore’s politics and politicians (one venerated politician in particular).

Liew had actually been working on this for some years now but its launch on May 30, 2015 happened to fall almost smack-bang midway between two key dates in Singapore’s history: the death of its founding prime minister (March 23) and the country’s 50th anniversary of independence (August 9).

Liew has international credibility as an illustrator, has drawn for Marvel and DC and has three Eisner nominations. Anyone wondering whether Singapore’s arts and media wonks were ready to celebrate a book like this got their answer last week: the country’s National Arts Council (NAC) revoked the S$8,000 grant they’d given the book’s publisher, Epigram.

There’s not a lot of color on why the NAC pulled its grant beyond the one reference to “sensitive content” in a few media reports. It’s not exactly wild speculation to guess that now is an awkward time for any government-linked body to be seen endorsing a piece of work that features the late Mr. Lee in a homage to the campy Dan Dare and The Eagle comics (amongst other depictions). If anyone was wondering whether policy decisions like this dissuade public consumption of such media in Singapore, the book’s first (and fairly modest) print run sold out over the course of a weekend.


Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

The Probationary Artistic Licence

One major difference between Charlie Chan and the work of others who have dared to tell alternative narratives in Singapore in recent history is that Liew’s work is both brilliant and fun. But more than that, it has an at times overbearing weight and depth to it: 302 explanatory endnotes in what is ostensibly a work of fiction. Endnotes don’t usually appear in graphic novels until after several print runs and even then they focus on aspects of the work’s artistic development, not its historicity. In Charlie Chan‘s case, Liew’s endnotes appear as context and background for his satire and allegory. They help readers with no knowledge of Singapore’s history and address and clarify the points of academic tension in the historical moments his cartoons refer to. It’s almost as if he’d made joke and has to explain why it’s funny. A quick glance at graphic novels on the shelf that deal with politics and history, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Journalism, shows it’s not industry practice. The graphic novel format is about elevating the narrative above the nuts and bolts of the story using color and character.

None of this takes away from what Liew has achieved. Importantly, it shows how artists navigate an awkward and often treacherous media landscape in Singapore: to make bold, unorthodox statements, artists, politicians and the media must do their homework and buttress their work with substance, even if it’s fiction. And to have global appeal, they must be strong storytellers. This is a reasonable demand to make of anyone who wants their expression to be taken seriously, even cartoonists and comedians. But it does create a psychological barrier of entry for younger, less confident artists to experiment and it means the content that is given free passage in Singapore is toothless and cheesy with no licence to push boundaries of any kind (a theme explored in Charlie Chan). That’s why we pay attention when the beauty and creative strength of a work like Charlie Chan trump the charmless demands of political orthodoxy.

Is there more than one Sonny Liew in Singapore? I believe there is.

UPDATE: The NAC has provided a bit more detail on its rationale to pull its funding. From this article and this letter in Today dated June 3, 2015 :

 “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines. The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

Giant Robot

Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye