Sonny Liew to return NAC funds for new book

The author of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye says he wants more freedom in terms of timeline and content for his book

Sonny Liew decided not to take the NAC grant so that he could untangle himself from the compromises of state funding.
Sonny Liew decided not to take the NAC grant so that he could untangle himself from the compromises of state funding. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Singaporean comic artist Sonny Liew will be returning a National Arts Council (NAC) grant for his upcoming work, in what he says is an effort to untangle himself from the compromises of state funding.

Liew, 42, had been awarded a $19,000 Creation Grant from the NAC for his new book.

He has received the first tranche of it, but is in the process of returning the sum, which he declined to disclose.

He has also turned down an invitation to speak at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which is organised by the NAC.

He tells The Straits Times: "With the SWF and the Creation Grant, I'm trying to simplify things on my end, to not get too tangled up in the compromises involved in a relationship where genuine dialogue is so limited.

"Of course it's not really possible, and the idea that you can separate the arts entirely from the state is a total pipe-dream.

"But you try your best, and hope that it is enough to focus on the work - make good comics, improve the craft."

Liew's relationship with NAC came under strain in 2015 when it withdrew an $8,000 grant for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, after its publication, citing its "sensitive content".

The book has since gone on to make history, with Liew becoming the first Singaporean to win at the coveted Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards in July. He won three out of the six awards he was nominated for.

Liew says that while in the past, he would apply for all the grants an artist could possibly get from NAC, things have "entered uncertain waters" in the aftermath of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

"The official stance as far as I can make out is that they can support me as an artist, but not the book itself," he says.

"It's an odd schizophrenic approach, with rather grey boundaries - how do you separate the cartoonist from her or his best known work to date?"

He adds that NAC communicates with art practitioners from behind a "veil of bureaucratese".

Liew had applied for the Creation Grant after the 2015 controversy, but said it seemed like it would be all right at the time, provided the new work was not about Singapore.

But recent developments, including the reserved Presidential Election and how it was conducted and the news that author Jeremy Tiang had his funding partially revoked for his novel about leftist movements in local history, led him to decide that he wanted freedom for his book, both in terms of the timeline of its creation and its content.

NAC's director of sector development (literary arts) May Tan confirmed that Liew will be returning his 2016 Creation Grant and added that during a recent dialogue with him, he had informed the council that "the mutually agreed project milestone schedule now does not work for him".

"We respect his decision and wish him success in completing his new work," she said.

"The Creation Grant supports the incubation of new works and the timeline of up to 18 months allows the council and artist to establish a reasonable scope of work that would be developed."

Liew's decision met with approval from netizens, while arts practitioners say they respect him for taking this step.

Poet Toh Hsien Min, 42, says that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that artists with concerns about conditions attached to state funding should actively seek out alternative funding not in conflict with their beliefs.

He adds: "I wish Sonny every success not least in the hope that this encourages the arts community to look beyond its prisoner's dilemma with the state and to develop resilience in the ecology of the arts."

Tiang, 40, says he fully supports Liew's decision, but cautioned that this should not be framed as a situation created by the council alone.

"The NAC isn't acting in isolation, but as part of an entire system of government," he said.

"These funding policies are a symptom of a larger problem: the lack of space for dissent and divergent viewpoints in Singapore."

Correction note: In an earlier version of this story, we said the NAC withdrew an $8,000 grant for Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye ahead of its publication. This is incorrect. The grant was withdrawn after the publication of the novel. We are sorry for the error.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline Sonny Liew to return NAC funds for new book. Subscribe