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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.

Endnotes

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

blade-runnerSingapore gets called lots of things: Disneyland. Toy Town. Pyongyang. China. None of these descriptions were actually coined in the city-state itself, they’re the products of curious foreign onlookers who can’t mind their own business.

The outside world’s version of Singapore’s story has always rankled the state and to a certain extent its people. In 1993, Wired published a blistering essay by sci-fi writer William Gibson that discussed (among other things) the Singapore government’s febrile tendency to outlaw media it didn’t like. The Singapore government responded by banning the publication. Could you make it up? Despite its wondrous economic success, Singapore has always struggled to shake the impression it made on Gibson.

Time and technology have made Singapore a more open place since those times and Gibson’s stuff is today street legal. But despite the relative openness, local prickliness toward foreign commentaries remains as pointed as ever.

The government is still quick to slam anything it deems slanderous, erroneous or inflammatory but at a more conversational level, few things irritate more than foreign jibes about the country’s ban on chewing gum sales. As one local writer moaned on the foreign media’s coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy: “Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin’ chewing gum.”

The ban was introduced in 1992, purportedly because gum could be used to jam the sensors of the city’s then shiny new subway cars. As it happens, many gum haters in the West genuinely respect Singapore’s commitment to order and cleanliness. All the same, the policy tells the story of a government that is not afraid of overreaching and treating its citizens like school children.

Similarly, the story of Michael Fay—a brat from the Singapore American School caned for graffiti around the same time—set the narrative around the country and how the West perceived it for at least a decade to follow. Never mind the fight against the Communists, separation from Malaysia or even the blockbuster horror show that was Japanese occupation, Singapore was simply the place you got birched in the backside for chewing gum and jaywalking (for the record, you don’t).

Singapore is known by other tropes but it’s the authoritarian narrative that endures most stridently in the Western reader’s mind. This is not only because of the West’s own freedom fetishes but also because Singapore is a fantastic source of dystopia porn: the idea that a comfortable, middle class existence may one day be overarched by an intrusive and officious corporatist regime. A country that gives everyone a number, takes their thumb prints, shuffles them into racial and religious folders and determines their destinies from the moment they can talk. Singapore is 1984, Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Running Man, Divergent and The Hunger Games, set in Asia. Singapore on paper presents the future of sci-fi terrors and it was precisely this fantasy that Gibson bottled in both Neuromancer and his Wired piece.

Leaning into the stereotype

Singapore’s government, its co-opted press and some of its intellectuals have always taken umbrage to foreign hyperbole and caricature, even positive ones such as the “economic Cinderella”. Reactionary measures such as censorship, lawsuits or painfully worded right-of-reply letters from the government to set the record straight go some way to controlling the message. But in the long run, they only reinforce the cliche of an establishment that is uneasy with alternative spins on the Singapore story. In short, “the lady doth protest”.

There are two classic retorts to criticisms of Singapore’s sterile and autocratic stereotypes. The first is the country’s own success, which speaks for itself: foreigners come to the country because it is rich, safe and politically reliable. Could you honestly say the same for Europe or the US right now? The second answer is that the city’s global connectivity, media consumption and high levels of education put paid to the myth of a cloistered and uncritical populace. As one Oxford-educated Singapore commentator asked last week: “So where is the trade-off? How are we unfree?”

The irony is that as a globally connected city, Singaporeans are indeed ravenous consumers of imported things, especially digital media. They are informed, educated and entertained by content produced in media ecosystems that are much more liberal than Singapore’s. If the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal reported in the deferential and stenographic manner of The Straits Times. they would not be read by any member of Singapore’s cabinet, including Mr. Lee. Perversely, Singapore’s media landscape demands two conflicting cultures of storytelling: an aggressive global standard for world news and a much safer, co-operative standard for local affairs. At some point, will consumers reject the second standard?

In open and competitive media systems, authority of voice is built up over time and based on merit, not given to you just because you have the backing of the highest power in the land. Some content is strong, some is weak and sure enough, some is not fit for purpose. But it is the competitive challenge to tell the narrative, not the obsession to control it, that creates the drive for credibility.

Curation vs Content Creation

Representatives for Facebook told Mashable, “Facebook isn’t a content creator, so it’s not accurate to call us a media company.” As always, Facebook points to its members, the people who use Facebook to post their own photos and stories as its real content creators.

What Facebook Paper is doing is aggregation. I find it inconceivable that at some point, Facebook would not toy with the idea of “exclusive” or “original” content, even if it is from a third party.

Back in 2011, the ShortFormBlog squirted out an interesting post that highlighted the great disparity between some of the covers of Time Magazine’s US and global editions. While the Asia, South Pacific and Europe editions asked questions about what the Egypt uprisings meant for the Middle East, the US edition pondered whether anxiety might actually be good for us.

Not to mention this.

It was a smart observation by ShortForm of a series of awkward juxtapositions  by Time. Some of the conclusions that followed elsewhere, however, weren’t so smart and relied a little too heavily on stereotype: that Americans are insular and generally very ignorant about what lies beyond those shining seas. Well, I’m neither going to shoot down those cliches nor defend Time’s choice of covers for its US edition.

While older folks remember when Time had authority, 30-something readers like myself look to other platforms for global commentary these days, increasingly the financial and tech press whose insights into the state of the world are as relevant as those of more politically-focused publications (Time Magazine – who reads that?)  What did get me thinking is this belief implicit in the criticism that a magazine like Time ought to have positioned its international content as its main attraction. Why should it? The US news market is not bereft of commentary and coverage of these events. And it’s not as if Americans are ambivalent about what happens in the Middle East as the first decade of this century has clearly shown.  What’s more, Time is reinventing itself, perhaps in much the same way as every other traditional news platform is, following in the footsteps of the mighty Hearst empire that still has assets but doesn’t really move the news needle these days. So why not move onto something else to write about instead of coming third or fourth place in a race to produce coverage that generally ends up being no different to anything else out there?

That might sound defeatist but if your parent company is struggling to support the investment required to keep you at the front of the pack in world news, then why not look at other ways you can win? Like writing about more nebulous sociological observations, technological trends or deep character profiles. Yes, to an extent it’s decline management but therein also lies a kind of creative that pairs the wisdom of old heads with new opportunities.

Looking beyond Time, which is a US publication with an international brand, why is there an expectation that outlets need to invest in global news coverage to remain relevant, (even if it is just an AP feed)? My worry is not that traditional media takes it cross hairs off of global events, it’s that more local reporting loses all its key players (it was good to see this commentary about Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York supplement).

What big media can bring to the local scene is global, regional or national context. I’ve written about this before: there are great news stories outside of the alpha and beta global cities that are of global relevance. There’s no reason why big media can’t bridge the gulf between the macro and the micro to make for stronger local content that travels into a wider catchment. But as I’ve also said before, I suspect that the ones that will achieve this are not the traditional media outlets but the emerging kings of data.

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Big news for one Singapore startup today: Viki is very well-known among Singapore’s startup community and is very familiar to K-drama and J-drama tragics. But it’s probably not particularly well-known in the general Anglosphere.

The nuts-and-bolts are as such: Japanese online retail site Rakuten reportedly buys Viki for US$200 million.

Viki’s concept is simple in theory but tricky in execution: a community of translators provide subtitles for “foreign-language” television content. That foreign-language could be in pretty well any language – so could the translated subtitles. So, you could have a Korean soap with Croatian subtitles. I wrote about these guys on a couple of occasions, one of those times when they were nominated for the Wall Street Journal’s Asian Innovation Awards.

Razmig Hovaghimian is Viki’s highly-focused and super-positive CEO. He understands the market economics of global television, having worked with NBC Universal. He understands the economics of language translation, speaking about five or so of them himself. He understands cross-cultural flows (he is a U.S.-educated Armenian-Egyptian married to a Japanese woman, living in Singapore with a couple of kids.) Most importantly, he understands the principle of “content arbitrage”: unlocking the latent value of one market’s content for consumption in much bigger markets elsewhere. While Viki doesn’t create any new television, by slapping subtitles onto the content it is able to acquire, it can access large new markets. Why would someone in the Philippines want to watch a Venezuelan novella? You’d have to ask the thousands of Filipinos doing just this. From a data point of view, the inflows and outflows of content between different language markets make for very  thought-provoking reading. It could also seriously disrupt the primacy of English-language content in the global entertainment market.

I’ll be honest,  I haven’t exactly spent lots of time immersed in Korean, Taiwanese or Egyptian soaps on Viki. I think this is a brilliant concept but it takes a lot of sweat to get it right and keep the volumes fresh.

The concept of “content arbitrage” goes back to what I wrote in my last post about why entrepreneurs and tycoons see value in local (as opposed to global or national) news outlets: they’re producing something nobody else on the planet is and this product might just be of deep value to someone, somewhere else in the world if only the technology exists to transport it.

Rakuten could have a bit of fun with Viki, though I’d be lying if I said I had any real ideas as to how. As is usually the case with these sorts of acquisitions, trying to imagine the synergies and how possible new products from both sides of the marriage could look is like trying to guess what your children will look like before they’re born. Probably what gets scribbled on the whiteboard now will look nothing like the reality. I’d say the same for Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of The Washington Post. Importantly, Rakuten now has a video piece in Viki and an e-books piece in the Kobo e-reader technology it acquired in 2012. The broad point remains the same: outfits with fresh content are now finding suitors from a much wider range of industries, not just traditional media players.

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I wrote a blog post back in June asking if old media houses might one day sell themselves to Silicon Valley giants. Anyway, two months later I get an answer – sort of.

Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post seems to make perfect sense to me although I don’t know very much about this transaction beyond the surface reporting we’ve seen so far.

There’s possibly a lot more that can be done on this front, many more old media companies that can join a more cashed up operation like Facebook or Google (platform neutrality be damned). This of course will change the nature of journalism. A more secure revenue base will lift the standard of reporting above the base stenographic and press release-driven “churnalism” of the past 15-years while integration with a technological platform like Amazon will connect journalists with the rich data ecosystems many of these new platforms boast. Data in and of itself, as anyone at Bloomberg will tell you, is news.

A while back, I also wondered what the future of smaller newspapers (those with a metropolitan or regional focus rather than a national or global one) was. Warren Buffett’s acquisition of a series of small town newspapers, again, makes a lot of sense to me.

What I find interesting is that almost a decade after I left my first newspaper job in Temora, Australia, (a sheep-and-wheat town of about 7,000 five hours west of Sydney) the bi-weekly Temora Independent still has no website of which to speak. This might not sound particularly surprising if anyone knows what sleepy Temora is like, but what it tells me is that these tiny news outlets are still providing news and information that no one else is, so much so they haven’t needed to invest in innovation to remain relevant. This means something and it means something to more than just the people of Temora, which is presumably why Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway sees value in local American newspapers (in some cases very local).

Why do I say this? I don’t have any strong economic argument or market research to back this up, but my gut tells me local reporting will soon become highly prized well beyond the small markets they’ve traditionally served.  These are towns that are usually too small to matter to major media outlets but they are rich in narratives. While I always aspired to work for a global news outlet for professional reasons, to be honest, the most interesting stories I ever came across came out of Temora. That might not say much for me as a journalist but for what it’s worth, there was David Schlunke, an artist who built a three-storey house in the middle of the thicket out of bottles, mud and an assortment of junk. There was Rosie Blachut who showed me her single-engine bi-plane which she too built herself. There was Gil Venz, the local Baptist pastor, who was staying with Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in India the night the three were burnt to death by an angry mob. David Lowy, the son of Westfield shopping mall mogul Frank Lowy, had set up an aviation museum in Temora full of working vintage fighter planes. Anecdotally, there are things I’ve done and things I’ve seen in these small towns that I don’t think I’ll ever do or see again in my life.

There is a depth of storytelling that the local news players have at their finger tips and as is the case with most of my examples above, you’d be hard-pressed to find much on the internet about any of these stories.

Somewhere in the bundles of yarn small town reporters gather lie bits of string that fit into much larger stories. An entrepreneur that can break down silos and integrate the resources of disparate and locally invested small-town papers could be onto something big. The key to unlocking this synergy is technological investment. I think both Buffett and Bezos are the start of a new wave of old media transformations.

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There are a few niggling issues on the Apple approval side, which I hope to have sorted for a July release. I’d have liked to have seen it out now, but getting it right is important.

I’ll keep you posted…

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