Haphazard National Arts Council indirectly boosts publicity for graphic novel

Ever heard of the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by comic artist Sonny Liew?

Thanks to the National Arts Council’s (NAC) sudden revoking of their arts grant to Liew’s new graphic novel, you’ve definitely heard of it now, and so did 500 other people who snapped up the book at bookshops around Singapore over the weekend.

All 1000 copies of its first run have been sold.

In one weekend.

Yes.

This, because of reports over NAC’s decision to withdraw their Performance Grant for the book.

In a move likely to haunt NAC for a while, the book’s $8,000 grant was revoked, due to content that “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the Government. The book depicts the work and life of little-known comic artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and satirises political events such as Operation Spectrum.

In other words, they don’t like how history was “retold” in the book.

Sonny Liew didn’t take the issue too hard though. I mean, his books sold out. That’s definitely a cause for celebration.

In a post on Facebook, Liew indirectly thanked NAC for helping his publisher, Epigram Books, to sell out the books within a single weekend, making reference to the Streisand Effect — where an attempt to ban, censor, or hide a piece of information inadvertently makes the information more widespread instead.

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His initial worry had been that Epigram Books may not have been able to deal with the loss of the grant. But thanks to the media, the publisher will now have to deal with a happier problem instead — that of reprinting the books.

NAC shot themselves in the foot by suddenly withdrawing the grant

There is a market for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, but no one would believe for a second that the book would sell as well as it did through normal promotion channels. The publishers had expected the book to sell out in two years’ time, not a single weekend. In this case, NAC helped immensely in promoting the book — at their own expense.

The representative manuscript was submitted to the NAC for the grant application, and it wasn’t only until before the books were published and ready to go on sale that the grant was revoked.

There is a distinct problem here — why was the grant given, then rejected so abruptly?

The grant should not have been approved if The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye did not meet the guidelines that the NAC so kindly pointed out when attempting to justify the revocation:

“The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines. The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

Then why was the grant approved?!?!??!! 

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This is a list of Presentation & Participation Grants given to Epigram Books, dated January 2014. It shows that the NAC approved the grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye more than a year ago.

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Clearly, there was some lapse or governmental pressure when dealing with the grant at NAC, as both the author and publisher had no reason to believe that the grant would be pulled literally at the last minute.

As a governmental arts council, it is completely fine to not want to fund a comic book that doesn’t fit guidelines. To fund, and later un-fund said comic book undermines the legitimacy of NAC, turns their guidelines into a laughing stock, and come off as wishy-washy in their decisions.

Like Sonny Liew discussed in his Facebook post, the NAC will need to sit down and think about how much politics should come into play when dealing with arts grants, and whether grants can be withdrawn when previously approved.

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Featured image via The Singapore Cartooning Institute/Epigram Books
With references from Sonny Liew, The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia