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The give and take of writers' grants

Why the fuss over the withdrawal of two grants? Writers and publishers cite concerns over reputation and self-censorship.

When Singaporean author Jeremy Tiang won a $12,000 grant from the National Arts Council (NAC) in 2010, it enabled the freelance writer, translator and tutor to focus squarely on researching his debut novel, State Of Emergency, which traces a family's journey through politically contentious times from the 1940s to present-day Singapore.

Then about a year later, NAC withdrew the remaining $3,400 of his grant, which it disbursed in stages.

By then, Mr Tiang said, the $8,600 from NAC up till then had enabled him to travel to Malaysia and Thailand by bus, and put up in youth hostels, to do his research. On the phone on Friday from New York where he lives, Mr Tiang said: "I did it as cheaply as possible but even as a freelance writer, having to take that time out would have been very difficult without the support (from NAC)."

Life after NAC pulled his grant was "no enormous hardship", added the 40-year-old, who as of today has been freelancing for 14 years - first as an actor and then mainly as a writer and translator for the last eight years. "I just took more freelance work. As an independent writer and translator, I had already adapted, coping with the fluctuating income."

Earlier this month, shortly after State Of Emergency hit bookstores, a written question was filed in Parliament on the grant withdrawal. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu replied that NAC had pulled Mr Tiang's grant because what he had written "deviated from the original proposal".

NAC declined to say more.

The rub is that anyone keen on writing, publishing and reading literature here considers an NAC grant as a stamp of literary merit. So when NAC takes away a grant, that raises all sorts of questions about the recipient and what he has done. Might he have been misleading in his grant application about the format and ambit of his proposed work?

ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

A grant withdrawal also raises questions about those who assessed the grant proposal - what did they miss in their evaluation?

Mr Tiang told The Straits Times as much. Stressing that he did not want "to be the victim here" and that he was not about "artists versus NAC", he wondered "what signals the state is sending about how far its willingness to support the arts goes".

Worse, Mr Tiang added, NAC's give-and-take-away approach would "lead to a culture of self-censorship if artists are constantly having to look over their shoulders".

POLITICS A FACTOR?

Like Mr Tiang, many authors and publishers here believe NAC, a 25-year-old statutory board under Ms Fu's ministry, stops funding writers whenever the Government nudges it to do so, perhaps because their writing is seen as going against the political thought of the day.

In an e-mail interview, Mr Fong Hoe Fang, publisher of Ethos Books, said: "If there was a veto, just own up. Don't denigrate the integrity of the artist or the competence of the assessing staff."

He himself has seen a grant withdrawn due to the intervention of "someone else with the power to override" NAC's initial decision. In that case, NAC had awarded the grant on the basis of a manuscript submitted by the writer. Mr Fong is convinced that the manuscript "had been judged to have met all conditions of the grant, but because of the interpretation synopsis I brought to the table when trying to promote the book, someone became alarmed at the implications and sought to derail it". He did not, however, specify who that someone was.

But here's the thing: If the Government, through NAC, was that keen on controlling creative content, why has it been pumping millions of dollars into supporting Singaporean writers' creative expression?

From 2010 to today, $30 million has been invested in the literary arts, but NAC declined to say how much went towards its grants, adding only that “for the last two years, about half of the funding for the literary arts goes into grants to writers, publishers and literary organisations as well as special initiatives”. Such initiatives include writing residencies in universities here.

In an interview last week, NAC's deputy chief executive officer Paul Tan, himself a published author, said that it will not pull a grant just because a writer's work "evolves" from his original proposal. "We try to accept that the artistic process is a creative one and that it evolves," he said. "Sometimes, that's fine but sometimes, it goes against the conditions of our agreement." For example, the grant recipient might have pitched a novella to NAC, but eventually produced a short story collection instead, said Ms May Tan, director of NAC's literary arts sector development group.

To be clear, NAC did not recoup from Mr Tiang the payments already made under the grant. It also does not ban the works of Mr Tiang or other authors who lose their grants, so they are free to sell them.

Still, many authors and publishers here want "even more transparency" from NAC on its arts funding policy.

Mr Tan insisted that he and his colleagues were upfront enough with grant recipients and other authors and publishers through regular, informal chats. "We interact with writers and the literary community regularly, whether to get their views on NAC's policies, new initiatives or programming like the Singapore Writers Festival."

While he did not say how often these regular chats were, he added that they could take place anywhere that was mutually convenient, including NAC's headquarters in Mountbatten Road. He said: "Such dialogues allow us to improve our policies and see what we can do better. These include helping applicants understand how our grants work and what the funding conditions are."

He also stressed that its guidelines, long available publicly, for withdrawing NAC grants are clear. Besides the self-explanatory conditions of obscenity, defamation and being prejudicial to others, other grounds for withdrawing a grant are, briefly, that the content produced advocates lifestyles that are objectionable to most; denigrates or debases anyone's race or religion; sows conflict or misunderstanding in society; or undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and public institutions, or threatens the nation's stability.

That is a very broad ambit. The phrase "undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government", for example, is open to interpretation.

Beyond these, NAC's Mr Tan said, "write what you want" and, contrary to the perception of some publishers here, NAC had "no particular stricture on any period in history". He also stressed that NAC withdraws grants "very infrequently" and such withdrawals are in a "single-digit percentage".

To put such funding conditions in perspective, Mr Fong said: "The majority of, if not all, patrons and grant-givers will wield a stick. Those who look for grants have to figure out which stick they are comfortable with, or which stick they can survive."

Agreeing, Mr Tiang noted that private funders could be "capricious" and the risk of leaning on them exclusively would be that the arts "becomes the preserve of the wealthy", a case of "we choose what we want and what we don't want".

Even so, some are not sure that NAC's clearly laid out conditions and regular dialogues with them are enough.

"I think NAC is the stick," said Mr Fong. "The politicians are the wielders of the stick.

"One doesn't attack a stick - one needs to talk or deal with the chaps holding the stick."

Pressed to clarify, Mr Fong said that his dealings with many government agencies here in the past 30 years showed "the same pattern all over" - there was always someone in them with what he called "veto power", which he likened to that of the United Nations Security Council. "When that veto is exercised," he said, referring to the Government, "nothing else can happen."

Mr Tiang said in his view, "the Government is representing the whole country, not just people who voted for a certain party (or those) who hold a certain point of view... so if it only funds certain voices, it's as if certain viewpoints are at an advantage. Then (things) become lopsided and imbalanced".

The NAC's Ms Tan, however, said it was a "misperception" that NAC's conditions constrained creativity. "You think only if I remove the conditions, the (literary arts scene) will grow? That's not necessarily the case. And if you are saying that what NAC has done has not grown the scene, I would beg to differ."

BUILDING CAPACITY

To be sure, the literary community here says it is "grateful" for all NAC has done, including turning the Singapore Writers Festival into a yearly affair with a following of at least 41,000, promoting their books at major overseas book fairs in Frankfurt and London, and linking them up with big literary players and sending writers for training.

Also, aspiring writers here can now take creative writing courses at the School of the Arts and in universities here, when not so long ago, most teachers here frowned on those wanting to studying literature.

Ms Tan noted that the blossoming of the literary arts here was a happy problem - for NAC as well as for prospective applicants for its grants. "The scene has grown, so the benchmark for quality is now higher. NAC must now respond to the higher quality and support higher-quality works."

Mr Tan said "all arts councils of the world fund with certain strategic outcomes" and as NAC is a steward of taxpayers' money, pursuing such outcomes is just part of being professional.

One of its grant withdrawals, however, sticks out: That which was awarded to publish the graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Mr Sonny Liew, which is an alternative spin on how Singapore attained independence.

Mr Liew's publisher Epigram Books won an $8,000 grant to produce it but NAC found that Mr Liew's "incomplete manuscript" had content which NAC said "potentially undermined the authority or legitimacy" of the Government and public institutions.

Mr Liew has since won international acclaim for Charlie Chan, including three internationally coveted Eisner awards, but if he was to write a sequel, would NAC give him or Epigram a grant to do so? And if the answer is no, would it not be reasonable to ask why the Government will not support one of the most successful authors in Singapore history?

Thus might the risk to reputation cut both ways. Asked how NAC might respond if authors who fell afoul of its conditions went on to win global honours consistently, Mr Tan pointed out that the grant process had "been in place for many years" and reiterated that grant withdrawal "remains very rare". He added that in the case of Mr Liew and Mr Tiang, "there was a breach of contractual agreement and that as a public institution, NAC had to either recover funds disbursed or cease further funding".

He said: "We will continue to champion our writers, many of whom have projects and works supported by NAC."

Mr Tan went on to say that NAC is now "placing more emphasis" on, among other things, "building the capabilities" of authors and publishers here to tap the "different revenue streams that are possible out there" so they might eventually be "self-sustaining".

He said: "To me, even if we don't support the work, the work is in the market and the market can decide on the work. And if you think about it, if the work is really good, there are many of these very good works which the public embraces. And if these do not need to take any funding from the state, wouldn't that be a great thing when that funding can go to support other artists?"

All things considered, Mr Tiang said NAC was "one of the great democratic institutions" here. "It's merit-based and it's enabled anyone of any income level to make art... as a writer, particularly if you're mainly operating in Singapore where publishing doesn't pay a great deal and it's very difficult to earn a living purely from writing. NAC is one of the few institutions that gives writers that freedom."

Might he apply for another NAC grant? "If the circumstances are right, of course," said Mr Tiang, who counts himself fortunate at the moment for being able to support himself with writing and translating work. "I have no ill will towards NAC. NAC funding is for people who need it. I wouldn't apply for a grant unless I needed the money to survive."

Correction: The paragraph on the amount of government funding for literary arts has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'The give and take of writers' grants'. Print Edition | Subscribe