National Arts Council faces online backlash for congratulating Sonny Liew for Eisner awards

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew is the first Singaporean to win an Eisner award.
Graphic novelist Sonny Liew is the first Singaporean to win an Eisner award. PHOTO: CHAN SHIUAN

SINGAPORE - An attempt by the National Arts Council (NAC) to congratulate Singaporean graphic novelist Sonny Liew on his three Eisner awards on Facebook has met with backlash online.

The NAC wrote on its Facebook page on Monday (July 24): "Congrats to Sonny on winning three Eisner awards over the weekend! We are pleased that a Singaporean has been accorded international recognition for artistic merit."

Liew, 42, became the first Singaporean to win an Eisner, the comics equivalent of the Oscars, last Friday night at Comic Con International in San Diego.

He took home Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material - Asia and Best Publication Design for his graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Netizens criticised the NAC for omitting the name of the book in the post, which has since been widely shared. Many brought up the controversy around its publication in 2015, when the NAC withdrew a $8,000 publishing grant.

At the time, Mr Khor Kok Wah, senior director of the NAC's literary arts sector, said: "The retelling of Singapore's history in the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions and thus breaches our funding guidelines, which are published online and are well known in the arts community."

The book, which retells Singapore's history through the lens of a fictional artist of satirical comics, depicts founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong.

It also refers to historical incidents such as the Hock Lee Bus Riots and the detentions without trial of alleged Marxists in Operation Spectrum in 1987.

The NAC added in its post that it was looking forward to seeing Liew's new works - including his upcoming first stage venture Becoming Graphic - at the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Netizens such as chocolatier Lim Jialiang, 27, one of the first who commented on the post, wanted to know why the book had not been named.

Said Mr Lim: "The NAC seems to be put in an awkward position to say the least - simultaneously needing to accord and congratulate Sonny, but also unable to mention the work that won, one that they withdrew their sponsorship for under very contested circumstances.

"The mild schizophrenia resulted in a timid whimper on their part for a monumental achievement in Singapore's comic book history."

Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee, the first to publish The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, said: "It's a strange kind of congratulations. I think they were responding to criticism on social media of the lack of congratulations. They didn't mention the title or the publisher so it's not going to help us sell the book, but I suppose Sonny can take some consolation from it.

"Sonny winning the Eisner is not a vindication anyway because we never for a moment thought the grant was withdrawn because of artistic or literary merit."

In an e-mail to The Straits Times from San Diego, Liew made a nuanced call for more dialogue between the authorities and the arts community.

Otherwise, he said, "it would be too easy to form antagonistic tribes caught up in conflicts no one actually wants to be in, instead of having everyone work together to nurture artists and the arts here in Singapore".

"It is easy to understand the sentiments expressed in many of the reactions to the NAC's somewhat terse Facebook message," he added. "If I was on the outside looking in, I'd likely have just joined in the chorus making gentle fun of the Council's unwillingness to mention the book's title.

"But really - effusive praise would matter less than the willingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue with the arts community about its decisions and processes."

He added: "The NAC is clearly not some monolithic all-powerful organisation, but rather one made up of many disparate individuals, many of whom are trying to do their best, as part of a relatively small branch of the government, acting under the constraints of ministers and ministries.

"And even higher up in the food chain, I think it is often the system that determines outcomes, whatever the actual intentions of individuals within it."

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the NAC did not comment on whether it had deliberately left out the title of Liew's book in the congratulatory Facebook post. The NAC spokesman said: "After such a major award, we would expect a diversity of views."

She added that they would like to encourage people to celebrate Liew's achievement by attending his theatrical venture Becoming Graphic next month at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, which is commissioned by the council.