NAC's post to congratulate Sonny Liew gets criticised

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew with the three Eisner awards he won for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
Graphic novelist Sonny Liew with the three Eisner awards he won for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.ST PHOTO: CHAN SHIUAN

Some ask why arts council did not name graphic novelist's award-winning book

A congratulatory message from the National Arts Council (NAC) to graphic novelist Sonny Liew on his three Eisner awards has led some to ask why there was no mention of his award-winning work.

The 42-year-old Liew became the first Singaporean to win an Eisner, the comics equivalent of the Oscars, last Friday night at Comic-Con International in San Diego in the United States. He took home three awards, including Best Writer/ Artist and Best Publication Design, for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The NAC wrote on its Facebook page on Monday: "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."

The post attracted some criticism for not naming the book. Some described it as a "half-baked" attempt at congratulating the author.

There were also suggestions that the name was left out due to the controversy around its publication in 2015, when the NAC withdrew an $8,000 publishing grant.

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

Mr Khor Kok Wah, senior director of the NAC's literary arts sector, said in 2015: "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."

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

She said the NAC 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.

Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee, 65, the first to publish The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, said of the NAC's post: "It's a strange kind of congratulations. I think they were responding to criticism on social media of the lack of congratulations."

He added: "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 from San Diego, Liew described the Facebook post as "somewhat terse". But he said that "effusive praise" would matter less to him than "the willingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue with the arts community about its decisions and processes".

"It would be too easy otherwise 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," he said.

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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'NAC's post to congratulate Sonny Liew gets criticised'. Print Edition | Subscribe