Thursday, 2 July 2015



Here’s something we’ve learnt in SG50, the glorious 50th year of Singapore’s independence:

If you are a budding artist in Singapore, pray that the National Arts Council (NAC) withdraws its funding (or pulps your work) and get The Straits Times to publish the gory details, and you’ve got an instant hit on your hands!

Don’t believe it? Witness the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Malaysia-born naturalised Singaporean Sonny Liew (above). On the day before its release, the NAC announced the withdrawal of its $8000 funding (a paltry figure actually) and its publisher Epigram Books had to return whatever had been disbursed. The reason? The book had dealt with topics of a “sensitive nature” which went against “NAC funding guidelines”.

The result? The first run of 1000 copies was sold out within a week, and a second run of 1500 copies went flying off the shelves. The book is now in its third printing run. I was fortunate to catch a copy at Kinokuniya the other week, mostly curious to find out what seditious and salacious content had angered the powers that be.

After burning midnight oil on two evenings, here is a summary of my findings:

Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a fictitious cartoonist born in 1938. He lived through the British colonial, Japanese occupation and Merdeka years, and tells the unfolding history of the city-state through a series of cartoons, each bearing different styles with different rather identifiable characters.

Wang Sa and Ye Feng tell the Singapore Story,
the way the gahmen wants you to know,

in the style of MAD Magazine.

The artwork is excellent, comparable with the best in the business (and we’re speaking globally here) and full of wit and humour. It was a delight to breeze through its pages, and difficult to suppress the chuckles that came spontaneously. This is a must-read for those who would like to share in a brief history of Singapore.

Charlie Chan's take on the Stop At Two
and Graduate Mothers campaigns.

And here’s the catch: it is an alternative history of Singapore, but not seen from the eyes of the victor (you know who they are). Elkay Wye and his party cronies are not portrayed in flattering light. The new Singapore is seen as a haven of wealth, where pragmatism (by not rocking the boat) and censorship have won over freedom of thought and speech. There is a comic strip called Sinkapor Inks about a stationery company headed by a dictatorial towkay called Mr Hairily (sounds familiar?)

There is also an imaginary revisionist history where Lim Chin Siong (called Lim Chin Siong here) becomes Prime Minister of Singapore and a benign non-Communist Barisan Socialis holds sway. Now look at Charlie Chan’s portraits of both the late politicians. Who would you vote for?

A morose LKY and
an optimistic LCS.

It’s almost a wonder now how The Art of Charlie Chan did not get banned outright! Maybe that’s the government’s idea of a soft touch today: just withdraw NAC funding and everything will look after itself. Banning it will only result in long queues at Johor Bahru bookstores.

The sorry plight of JBJ (bless his soul).
My message: buy several copies of The Art of Charlie Chan and gift your relatives, friends, enemies and frenemies a truly authentic SG50 gift. Available at Kinokuniya and good bookstores.

In the ever-popular Singaporean game of giving acronyms their true meaning: What does NAC stand for?

No Actual Commonsense
Never Allow Creativity
Nil Artistic Content
Not Against Censorship
Nosey Annoying Creatures
No! Allowances Cut!
Nasty Authoritarian Circus
Nitpickers Are Cowardly
Nobody Acting Civilly

Please help me out here!

1 comment:

Sheng said...

This book will go very far. An absolute delight; the best gift from Singapore to give to friends!