Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye sparks debate on arts funding

Two extra shows of Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Sonny Liew and theatremaker Edith Podesta, have been added due to overwhelming demand.
Two extra shows of Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Sonny Liew and theatremaker Edith Podesta, have been added due to overwhelming demand.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Cartoonist Sonny Liew's wins at the Eisners has thrown The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye funding controversy back into the spotlight

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng has waded into the online debate on who should fund the arts in Singapore.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday night, Mr Cheng argued that the Government should not be expected to fund the arts, but instead galvanise the private sector to do so through donations.

"The principle is that the Government should not be using taxpayers' money to fund what is essentially a subjective exercise - one person's art is another person's garbage," he wrote.

He added that the Government is placed in an "impossible situation", especially if the subject is controversial. "If it decides not to fund a project, or worse still, withdraw a grant (...) it will be accused of censorship and get criticised. If it goes ahead and funds it, other groups and taxpayers will get their knickers in a twist, and lampoon the Government regardless."

His comments come on the back of the controversy around graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which had its funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council (NAC) in 2015 due to "sensitive content".

This was thrust back into the spotlight after its creator, Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew, won three awards at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards last Friday.

The Council congratulated Liew, 42, in a brief Facebook post on Monday, but drew flak from netizens for not mentioning the book's title.

Two extra shows of Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Sonny Liew and theatremaker Edith Podesta, have been added due to overwhelming demand.
Two extra shows of Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Sonny Liew and theatremaker Edith Podesta, have been added due to overwhelming demand. PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

Some members of the arts community were dismissive of Mr Cheng's post. Singapore Dance Theatre artistic director Janek Schergen called his comments "foolish".

"If someone is truly interested in the arts in Singapore, they wouldn't make a comment like that," he said.

"Overseas, people understand that their patronage of the arts is their community service. In Singapore, that concept of community service is there, but it's not as strong. Without funding from NAC, you would destroy the art scene because the burden wouldn't be picked up by anybody else."

Singapore Chinese Orchestra executive director Terence Ho said, however, that Mr Cheng has a point in that the arts should rely more on private funding than on the state, although this cannot happen overnight.

He observed that in other countries such as the United States, orchestras began by relying on government assistance, then progressed to running more independently. Singapore, he hopes, is moving in that direction.

"When we talk to potential corporate and individual donors, we don't just want them to donate dollars and cents," he said. "We hope to see them as our audience at the end of the day, which means they will appreciate it and continue to advocate for it. That's how the arts can blend into business."

In a Facebook post unrelated to Mr Cheng's, outgoing Singapore International Festival of the Arts festival director Ong Keng Sen, said on Tuesday night: "I personally view arts funding as becoming increasingly suspicious - we are told more and more that we should not bite the hand that feeds us.

"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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2017, with the headline 'Graphic novel sparks debate on arts funding'. Print Edition | Subscribe