A new graphic novel sold out its first print run last weekend, after news broke that Singapore's National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew its publishing grant worth S$8,000 (about US $6,000).
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a graphic novel by Sonny Liew, an established artist and illustrator who has done work for DC Vertigo and Marvel Comics. Liew also won NAC's Young Artist Award in 2010.
Although NAC had reviewed and approved the grant application for the book project, it later withdrew the grant because the book allegedly breached “funding guidelines”.
“The retelling of Singapore’s history in the book potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.” Khor Kok Wah, senior director of NAC’s literary arts sector, told the press. “The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”
The graphic novel follows the protagonist, a comic-book artist named Charlie Chan, through the founding years of Singapore's history. Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as well as Lim Chin Siong (Lee's political rival who was later detained without trial), also appear in the book. The story also mentions the detentions of lawyers, social workers, and activists in a 1987 sweep known as Operation Spectrum.
Examinations of Singapore's history can be a touchy subject, especially when someone contradicts the country's official narrative. While historians and commentators have asserted that the detentions were politically motivated, the ruling People's Action Party—which has led the government since 1959—insists that the grant was withdrawn for reasons of national security and stability.
Taking back the grant inadvertently generated more media and public attention for Liew's book. About 270 copies were bought when it launched last Saturday, and the first print run of 1,000 copies has since sold out completely.
Awesome turnout at launch of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye today in Singapore kinokuniya !… https://t.co/KUsoTkC6Au
— Cheryl Liew (@cherylliew) May 30, 2015
Writing on Facebook, Sonny Liew thanked people for their support, and drew attention to questions about the role of public money in the arts:
What remains are questions over the role of a national arts organization, the role of public money, who decides how and why they're spent. Should the NAC be more focused on artistic considerations and be less bound by political constraints? What is the criteria for deciding if a work crosses unacceptable boundaries? Why shouldn't good art be commerically self-sustainable anyway?
Singaporeans also questioned the possibility of a graphic novel's ability to undermine the state:
Bryan Chan Yin Seng If a little satire can undermine the authority and its legitimacy, then the government should really really question themselves how weak this government authority and legitimacy is at the first place.
Chee Hoe Siew It is a comic book using Singapore's history as its background. How is this required to have an accurate portray of history? If this is the case, the government should move forward to band every single story book.
On social media, many observed that the NAC's withdrawal has actually been beneficial to book sales:
.@kixes surely the only thing better than an arts grant in Singapore is the govt withdrawing an arts grant.
— Rob O'Brien (@robwriting) June 3, 2015
— Cheryl Liew (@cherylliew) May 29, 2015
The book's publisher, Epigram Books, had to return the S$6,400 (USD $4,700) that it had already spent, and print stickers to cover up the NAC's logo in the book.