Censorship by Financial Sabotage: Cartoonist Sonny Liew Loses Singapore Arts Grant

Due to unease over the book’s controversial content, the National Arts Council in Singapore has withdrawn its grant to aid in the publication on Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The book, which was released in Malaysia this past month and is slated for release in the United States and other countries in 2016, represents a milestone in not only Liew’s career, but also for his home country of Singapore’s growing comics industry. Meshing fiction and non-fiction, Liew’s book is a historical expose of Singapore’s recent history and the individuals who helped shape the country. Tackling a difficult subject like Singapore’s historical struggle for independence, including the Hock Lee bus riots and notable figures Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong and the repression of free expression, some — including Liew himself — had worried that the subject matter would impact the book’s publication.

Choosing the comics medium to present his country’s past, Liew expressed optimism and hope in being able to share this rich history despite potential governmental censorship:

“Maybe telling the story through comics allows the questions to be approached differently. Hopefully, it can reach a wider audience, and engage them in a new way. The medium may not always be the message, but it does affect the way a reader reacts to the subject or content.”

As opposed to an outright and intentional censoring of the book, the decision by the National Arts Council (NAC) to remove funding based on their misunderstanding of the intended and perceived sensitive subject matter has presented a passive form of censorship by creating a financial obstacle for the work’s publication in Singapore. “We had to withdraw the grant when the book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye came out because its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions,” said Khor Koh Wah, senior director of the literary arts sector of the NAC. “The council will continue to support and work with Epigram, a leading publisher of Singapore literary works, on other projects.”

NAC is a government-linked organization whose purported mission is to “nurture the arts and make it an integral part of the lives of the people of Singapore.” Whether NAC’s decision was independently made or coerced, based on the application guidelines for the S$8,000 grant, NAC reserves the right to withdrawal funding if “illegal or negligent acts that occur during any point of the funded project, which will adversely affect the reputation of the National Arts Council, any government bodies, public institutions, national leaders or (the applicant’s) organisation.” In this case, the “illegal or negligent act” appears to be the depiction of politically sensitive history in Singapore.

The removal of the funding, though, will not stop the publisher from putting out the book. Faced with similar financial dilemmas in the past, publishers in Singapore have come to expect these types of censorship attempts. Although it means that they will need to sell more copies to break even, the publication of books like Liew’s is important not only for telling Singapore’s story, but also for standing up for free speech.

“I’d hoped the book was nuanced enough in … dealing with the issues,” Liew said in response to NAC’s decision. “But developments have made it clearer that NAC works under constraints that make it difficult for it to support works that are deemed politically sensitive.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!