State versus the arts in Singapore

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Singapore's iconic Merlion statue (R) is projected with a light-art installation by Danny Rose Collection of France titled "The Body of the Sea" during media preview for the iLight Marina Bay festival in Singapore on March 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Charlie Chan has created comics for decades, a once-enthusiastic young artist, now an old man, living in a small rental flat in Singapore.

His body of work tells the story of the small island nation’s journey towards independence, reflecting and even questioning the maneuvers of well-known politicians like Singapore’s national founder and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Charlie Chan, of course, isn’t a real artist. Rather, he’s a character in a popular graphic novel, and his story – and subsequent events – have shone a revealing light on the Singapore government’s true attitude towards the arts.

On July 22, Sonny Liew became the first Singaporean to be awarded at the Eisners, commonly described as the Oscars for comics, for his graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” He took home trophies for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material – Asia and Best Publication Design.

Singapore-Sonny Liew-Charlie Chan Hock Chye

A frame from Singaporean graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s award-winning “Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” Portrait courtesy of the artist.

Unlike the immediate and effusive celebration of Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling’s gold-medal triumph at the Olympics, the response from the state on Liew’s award was muted. The state’s National Arts Council (NAC) put out a carefully-worded congratulatory statement two days later, without specifically referring to Liew’s artistic work.

The hesitation was perhaps understandable. The council had earlier withdrawn a S$8,000 (US$5,900) publishing grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye just ahead of its launch in 2015, reasoning that its content “potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government.

The revocation, which ironically helped to catapult the graphic novel into the public eye, now looks even more short-sighted with the novel’s international acclaim.

Despite the government’s issues with his book, Liew hasn’t yet been blacklisted in Singapore. He continues to work from a state-subsidized studio in one of the country’s art centers, and has a show scheduled at the upcoming Singapore International Festival of the Arts, which is notably supported by the NAC.

Singapore-Lee Kuan Yew-Sonny Liew-Charlie Chan Hock Chye-2016

A portrait of Singapore national founder Lee Kuan Yew from graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s award-winning “Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” Portrait courtesy of the artist.

“They have adopted a sort of schizo approach where they say they can support me as an artist, but not the book in itself,” Liew told Yahoo! Singapore in July this year.

Liew’s experience is emblematic of the conflicted relationship between the state and the arts, a constant push-pull, love-hate tension that provokes a gamut of reactions, ranging from praise to criticism to mockery.

Although Lee Kuan Yew once remarked in 1968 that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”, the state has since directed attention and funds towards developing the arts in the island nation.

In 2005, his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in a national address that the city-state needed to become “vibrant, cosmopolitan, and throbbing with energy” through “our own distinctive X-factor” to stand out from other global cities.

The NAC supposedly has a similar vision for nurturing Singapore into a “distinctive global city for the arts.” The council regularly hands out grants, awards and subsidies to select local artists. State funding and support has since become the financial lifeblood that sustains Singapore’s arts industry.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) shakes hands with artist Chua Mia Tee during the opening of the newly restored National Gallery, formerly the City Hall and High Court building, in Singapore on November 23, 2015. The gallery oversees the worldís leading public collection of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia comprising over 8,000 works from the 19th and 20th centuries in all media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video. AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL / AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) with local artist Chua Mia Tee during the opening of the newly restored National Gallery, formerly the City Hall and High Court building, on November 23, 2015.  Photo: AFP/Mohd Fyrol

Yet Liew’s experience with the “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” and testimony from other Singaporean artists reveal a still yawning gap between the independent creativity the state supposedly aims to incubate and its still hard-wired nanny state reflexes.

“I often get the impression that the Singaporean state is supportive of the arts – or at least has heard that art is something world-class cities have, so we should get some of that too, but still regards actual artists as at best inconvenient and at worst dangerous,” writer and translator Jeremy Tiang told Asia Times.

Tiang recounted his experience of having a NAC grant withdrawn after it read the first draft of his debut novel, State of Emergency.

“They take you to a cafe and tell you that they’re very sorry, and they totally support you as an artist, but on this occasion, they’re going to have to cut you off,” Tiang said.

“And, incidentally, they’re going to preemptively cancel a second grant that you’d already been approved for, and they’re doing this for your own good, so you don’t get a reputation as a troublemaker.”

His debut novel follows a family from the 1950s to the present, touching on the old leftist and Communist movements in colonial Malaya, as well as the Lee government’s use of detention without trial against left-leaning activists and dissidents – a topic that remains sensitive in Singapore.

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A portrait of Singapore national founder Lee Kuan Yew from graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s award-winning “Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” Portrait courtesy of the artist.

Grace Fu, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, explained that his grant had been withdrawn because “the content in the book deviated from the original proposal.”

Artistic critics say the state’s wariness of artists is rooted in ruling politicians’ awareness of art’s power to inspire, motivate and influence.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, the [People’s Action Party] also used art as part of the cultural war to bring messages across and build nationalism,” said Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of theater company Drama Box and a nominated parliamentarian. “I think the powerful understand what art can do.”

Some have argued that, instead of grappling with the government’s ambiguous red lines, artists should simply reject state funding and its attached strings.

“Consider a scenario whereby an artist or arts group accepts money from say an online shopping platform, and then puts up a play or an installation piece that trashes the company’s delivery. Wouldn’t that company quickly pull funding?,” local poet Toh Hsien Min wrote recently in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

“[I]n the real world funding comes with conditions, and if artists are not happy with the conditions set by whichever organization is offering funding, the only real option is to decline that funding.”

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An exhibit on display at Singapore’s National Gallery on August 4, 2017. Photo: Kirsten Han

Local artists say that’s easier said than done. “That’s a tricky proposition in a country where state participation in all fields of life is so pronounced,” said Liew.

“It is not even clear if the authorities would want or allow the arts to break free from constraints and be financially and ideologically independent… I’d suppose they seek to have some control over the arts not just because they can, but also because they want to.”

Singaporean artists are accustomed to living with this tension, finding ways to probe the boundaries while sustaining their own livelihoods. But walking this tightrope of dependence doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of creating space for more diverse perspectives in Singapore.

It’s an existential crisis that weighs heavy on many of the soft authoritarian state’s artists and writers. “The question is: Does the government trust artists?” asked Kok. “Does the government even believe that contestation and disagreement is part of what makes the society creative and democratic?”

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