COMMENT: The strange silence from ministers on Sonny Liew’s Eisner success

Photo of Sonny Liew with his three Eisner awards: Chan Shiuan
Photo of Sonny Liew with his three Eisner awards: Chan Shiuan

UPDATE: This article has been amended to reflect the National Arts Council’s congratulatory message to Sonny Liew and the date that Jeremy Tiang’s manuscript was submitted.

Singaporeans will know it: we are so very fond of awards and plaudits. Whether it’s being the top student at the A-levels or being crowned the world’s best airport or praise from international bodies for our lack of corruption, we love to crow about our successes and punching above our weight.

So when Sonny Liew scored a hat-trick of Eisner Awards, the comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, on Saturday (22 July), you might have expected congratulatory messages to come flooding in from every corner. After all, he is the first Singaporean to win an Eisner – comparable to the Pulitzer or Man Booker Prize – one of the greatest achievements on the international stage by a local artist. His graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” is also internationally acclaimed.

But two days after the award ceremony, while writers, artists and members of the public have been fulsome in their praise of Liew, the silence from the establishment has been conspicuous. Not a single People’s Action Party Member of Parliament or minister has congratulated Liew.

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera of the Workers’ Party wrote on Facebook, “Sonny Liew has done Singapore proud…Great art should always be supported, regardless of the political perspectives it expresses (unless criminality or disharmony is incited).”

Compare this to the aftermath of Joseph Schooling winning Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal in August 2016, when everyone rushed to congratulate him, and he was even lauded in Parliament. While some might argue that an Eisner win is not on the same level as an Olympic gold, Liew’s achievement is no less difficult.

Perhaps the authorities do not like to be reminded of the controversy over “Charlie Chan”, when in 2015, the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew an $8,000 publishing grant for the book over its “sensitive content” that could potentially undermine the legitimacy of the government. While the NAC has never specified just what was so “sensitive” about “Charlie Chan”, it is not difficult to figure out why it struck a raw nerve.

Jarring with the official narrative

While the protagonist is fictional, the book is brimming with references to some of the most controversial moments in Singapore’s history from the 1950s to the 1980s. They include Operation Coldstore, the detention without trial of dozens of left-wing politicians and trade unionists in 1963, defamation suits filed by ministers against opposition figures and the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987. The late Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, co-founders of the ruling People’s Action Party, are also key characters in the narrative.

In history textbooks and other official sources, we are told that the late Lee and the PAP saved Singapore from the looming communist threat. Lim and his compatriots were jailed in 1963 as they were communist sympathisers who posed a threat to national security. “Charlie Chan” offers an alternate narrative, drawing on a diverse range of research materials to argue that Lim was unjustifiably jailed and examining the government’s draconian control of the media. One chapter even imagines a parallel universe where Lim is prime minister, while Lee is exiled to Cambodia.

It must be said that Liew has been far from blacklisted from official events. He was a featured writer/artist at last year’s Singapore Writers’ Festival and will also feature at the upcoming Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). But Liew did tell Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore in a recent interview that the NAC has adopted a “schizo” approach towards him: it can support him as an artist, but would rather not talk about “Charlie Chan”, his main claim to fame. This is perhaps reflected in its congratulatory message to Liew on Facebook, which did not mention the book: “We are pleased that a Singaporean has been accorded international recognition for artistic merit.”

In this regard, the authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place. By staying silent on Liew’s historic win, they seem to be sending a message that artists should steer clear of sensitive political topics for their creative works, rendering the impression that its support for the arts scene comes with strings attached.

On the other hand, if ministers and PAP MPs were to praise Liew, they would undermine the original position of the NAC, inferring that the agency had erred in withdrawing the grant. Perhaps the government could have chosen the latter course, couching its congratulatory messages with the proviso that while it stands by NAC’s position, it wants to support talented artists like Liew with the aim of nurturing a vibrant arts scene.

If Liew’s three prestigious “gold medals” aren’t enough to merit words of encouragement from the authorities, what more for artists whose laudable achievements might not be on the same level as the Eisners?

A widening space

Liew is not the only creative artist to have his grant withdrawn by the NAC. After writer Jeremy Tiang sent out to NAC in 2011 the first draft of his novel “State Of Emergency”, which is about the history of leftist movements in Singapore, NAC withdrew the remainder of the grant awarded to him. Tiang had received $8,600 of the $12,000 grant before NAC pulled the plug.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the government standing its ground on the official narrative. But if it aims to pay more than lip service to the broader national goal of fostering critical thinking among students, then there has to be greater space for dialogue and alternative views. As Liew said in an interview with The New York Times, “My book is meant to create a more inclusive vision of Singapore’s history, one that encourages readers to look at all narratives with a critical eye.”

In February this year, The Straits Times reported that a panel of academics and former senior civil servants, including leading diplomats Kishore Mahbubani and Chan Heng Chee, said that Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority. “We need to create new formulas, which you can’t until you attack and challenge every sacred cow. Then you can succeed,” said Mahbubani.

In all fairness, the space is opening up for works like “Charlie Chan”. Books written by “revisionist historians” – a term that has often been used by the government to describe historians who disagree with the official narrative – on subjects such as Coldstore are easily available. Plays like “Cooling Off Day”, which takes a light-hearted look at the idiosyncrasies of Singapore’s electoral system, are staged without cuts. These works would probably not have seen the light of day more than a decade ago.

But the so-called OB markers still remain. During a talk conducted by Epigram Books, the publisher of “Charlie Chan”, shortly after the book’s release, a teacher revealed that the NAC grant saga underscored the message that there was a line drawn in the sand by the authorities about the interpretation of modern Singapore’s early history, and teachers were wary of crossing it.

If it were true that teachers might be discouraged from openly discussing “Charlie Chan” with students by contrasting its interpretations of Singapore’s momentous events with the approved textbooks, it would be a poor reflection of the education system. After all, the spirit of free enquiry should be embraced by everyone in Singapore, including the government.

And if nothing else, Liew, like every Singaporean who has done the country proud, deserves at least a simple ‘Congratulations’ from authorities.