NAC withdraws grant for Singapore comic due to "sensitive content"

Nicholas Yong
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a new graphic novel by Singaporean creator Sonny Liew. Picture courtesy of Epigram Books. 

Just one day before it is due to officially launch, a graphic novel by an award-winning local artist has had its $8,000 publication grant withdrawn by the National Arts Council (NAC). 

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, is a meditation on Singapore's history, socio-political issues, comic art history, censorship and more. It examines key incidents in Singapore's history such as the Hock Lee Bus riots, and includes the late Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong as comic characters.

In response to queries from Yahoo Singapore, NAC's Khor Kok Wah, senior director for the Literary Arts Sector, said, “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. The Council will continue to support and work with Epigram on their other projects."

An NAC spokesman added, "NAC has been in conversation with Epigram to consider their views and explain the Council’s reasons since last week. The decision to withdraw [the grant] was only made this week."

Queries as to whether NAC has withdrawn grants for other projects, and how many times it has done so this year, went unanswered. 

Liew, probably Singapore's most high profile comic creator with a portfolio including work for both Marvel Comics and DC Comics, said he was "a little bit disappointed" with the NAC's move.

"I hoped that the NAC could support something like this, but I sort of understand where they are coming from, given their operating constraints. It’s maybe a bit unfair to the publisher, as they would have made decisions on costs based on having the grant," said Liew, who took three years to complete the graphic novel.

Epigram Books publisher Edmund Wee would not comment on the withdrawal of the grant, but did say, "We will now have to sell many many more copies to make up for the loss of the grant." On average, it costs Epigram Books $20,000 to $25,000 to publish a book, which incluces the cost of printing, design, the author’s advance and more. 

Wee added, "But life goes on. We will carry on publishing, whether we get grants or not."

Ironically, in an earlier interview with Yahoo Singapore, Liew was asked what he thought of the fact that his book was being published with support from the NAC. Liew had said, "There's more room for alternative voices these days, but I think there is still a general sense of unease about what you can say and do."

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will be officially launched on Sat, 30 May at 2pm at Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. It's now available for $37.34 at Books Kinokuniya as well as Epigram Books