Award-winning Singaporean illustrator Sonny Liew returns S$19,000 NAC grant for new book

Eisner award winner Sonny Liew is returning the S$19,000 NAC Creation Grant he was awarded in 2016, and has also turned down the invitation to participate in this year's Singapore Writer's Festival. — Picture by Najeer Yusof/TODAY
Eisner award winner Sonny Liew is returning the S$19,000 NAC Creation Grant he was awarded in 2016, and has also turned down the invitation to participate in this year's Singapore Writer's Festival. — Picture by Najeer Yusof/TODAY

SINGAPORE, Sept 16 — Eisner award winner Sonny Liew is returning a S$19,000 (RM59,215) grant from the National Arts Council (NAC) due to a disagreement over scheduling, and other reasons.

Liew, 42, was awarded a NAC Creation Grant last year for his new book. However, it was revealed yesterday (Sept 15) that he will no longer be taking up the grant and instead, will be returning the first tranche of the funds which he had received earlier. Both Liew and NAC declined to disclose the amount.

Liew did not reveal what his new book would be about, but admitted that the decision to turn down the NAC grant was “partly about scheduling”. However, he added, there is “more to it”.

“Bureaucracy can be a good thing in trying to ensure there are regulations and institutions in place to try to ensure transparency, accountability and fairness. But my sense (is) that it is also often a shield for the opposite — to obscure motives, to rationalise weak positions,” he said.

Elaborating on his decision to cut the cord, Liew said: “It is partly all the recent events… and Jeremy Tiang’s experience, that compromising can be too easy an option. I’ll admit all this might not be the wisest move, but sometimes you follow your instincts and hope your compasses aren’t too awry.”

He added that he is “just trying to simplify things on my end as best I can… and not get too tangled up in the compromises involved in a relationship where genuine dialogue is so limited”.

Singapore author, Tiang, had the remainder of his S$12,000 NAC grant — of which he had already received S$8,400 — withdrawn in 2011 when he sent out the first draft of his book State of Emergency.

In August, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu responded to parliamentary queries and said that NAC withdrew funding for Tiang’s book because the content in the book deviated from the original proposal that had been mutually agreed upon.

Tiang’s novel follows the fortunes of a Singaporean family caught up in political intrigue over the years, including the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, Operation Spectrum in 1987 and the long-drawn guerrilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960.

Similarly, Liew’s publication caused a stir when the NAC withdrew an S$8,000 publishing grant for The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye in May 2015 due to “sensitive content” on the eve of its launch here.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye features personalities such as founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, opposition politician Lim Chin Siong and Operation Spectrum, the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, in 1987.

When contacted, NAC’s director for sector development for literary arts May Tan would only say that Liew had informed the Council during a recent dialogue that “the mutually agreed project milestone schedule now does not work for him” and he will return the grant.

“We respect his decision and wish him success in completing his new work,” Tan said.

In recent months, there has been an ongoing heated debate surrounding arts funding by the state and the conditions attached to such funding.

Liew believes that the issue of state funding and arts remains and will continue to rage on. “It’s a pipe dream that they can be separated,” he said.

Following Liew’s historic win of three Eisner Awards in July this year, another online furore erupted when NAC’s congratulatory note to Liew failed to mention the work for which he earned the international accolades.

“In the aftermath of the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye though, things have entered uncertain waters. The official stance (by NAC) as far as I can make out is that they can support me as an artist, but not the book itself. It’s an odd schizophrenic approach, with rather grey boundaries - how do you separate the cartoonist from her or his best known work?”

He said that it was not easy to figure out how to respond to NAC’s positions.

“Art practitioners have to figure out how to respond to the NAC’s positions. It’s not easy, because dialogue is limited, and even when there is conversation, they speak to you from behind a veil of bureaucratese.”

Liew’s criticism of the NAC comes shortly after former Singapore International Festival of Arts director Ong Keng Sen also levelled scathing remarks about the Council and its control over the arts. Speaking to The Guardian and The Straits Times, Ong spoke about his challenges programming for the festival.

Ong had told the media outlets that he had to allay numerous concerns that Becoming Graphic – a commissioned production on a new graphic novel by Liew for the stage – would feature content from The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Such restrictions, Ong told The Guardian, have huge consequences for the quality of art produced, and its potential for critique.

Liew has also turned down an invitation to speak at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which is organised by the NAC. He said, however, that his decision not to participate in the festival “isn’t about not working with the NAC in general, but looking at their programmes and grants on a case-by-case scenario, to see what makes sense”.

He added: “I felt uncomfortable taking part without having some dialogue first about their stance on the book and arts funding more generally.”

Liew acknowledged though, that it could perhaps been due to the NAC being busy preparing for the SWF that they did not get a chance to have that discussion. So, Liew explained: “I felt it was better to turn down the invite. It was just one panel, and I thought it wasn’t one that addressed that more urgent issues in the comics or arts scene here today.”

Having said that though, Liew said he would be “happy to take part in things like talks or workshops with students”, regardless of who is involved as long as “the scheduling allows for it”.

“Beyond that, I’d always be open to dialogue – but hopefully real dialogue, with the veil removed,” Liew added. — TODAY

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