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NAC withdraws grant for graphic novel publisher due to “sensitive content”

SINGAPORE — The National Arts Council (NAC) has withdrawn a publishing grant for the graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on the eve of its Singapore launch because of “sensitive content”.

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SINGAPORE — The National Arts Council (NAC) has withdrawn a publishing grant for the graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on the eve of its Singapore launch because of “sensitive content”.

The council declined to elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to revoke the S$8,000 grant. The experimental graphic novel by artist-illustrator Sonny Liew follows the story of comic-book artist Charlie Chan during the formative years of Singapore’s modern history. It weaves together fictional and historical elements, with nods to events and personalities in the nation’s history, such as Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, opposition politician Lim Chin Siong and Operation Spectrum, the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, in 1987.

In a statement, NAC’s senior director of the literary arts sector Khor Kok Wah 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, a leading publisher of Singapore literary works, on other projects.”

Application guidelines for the grant state that NAC reserves the right to withdraw funding for reasons such as “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”. The last-minute withdrawal has put pressure on Epigram Books to sell more copies to break even. “The book has been published and the launch is still on. Without the grant, we will need to sell more copies,” said publisher Edmund Wee.

The NAC grant was awarded before the publication of the book and Mr Wee said he would be returning the S$6,400 that had been disbursed. He will also be printing stickers to cover the NAC logo in the book, of which 1,000 copies have been printed. He said the average cost of producing one of its books is around S$20,000.

The book, which is retailing for S$34.90, was launched in Malaysia early this month. An American edition with publishing imprint Pantheon Books is slated for next year and there are plans for a French edition too. It will be launched tomorrow (May 30) at Books Kinokuniya Singapore.

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye ran into grant issues earlier, when the Media Development Authority (MDA) reduced a S$115,000 grant for the publication of five graphic novels by Epigram — among them The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The MDA said: “The first four books were completed as scheduled. However, due to production delays, Mr Liew’s book could not be completed on time. Hence, Epigram and MDA agreed to withdraw Mr Liew’s book from the grant.”

Mr Liew expressed his disappointment with NAC’s decision. “I’d hoped the book was nuanced enough in ... dealing with the issues. 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.”

In 2011, the NAC withdrew a grant for a volume of playwright Chong Tze Chien’s collected plays, which had included Charged, a play that dealt with national service and race. “We went ahead to publish and obviously lost money as books on plays are already hard to sell,” recalled Mr Wee.

Mr Liew was conferred the NAC’s Young Artist Award in 2010, has been nominated thrice for the prestigious Eisner Awards, which is considered the Oscars of the comic book industry. He is currently the artist for the revamped Doctor Fate series under DC Comics, which will be launched next month.

The Malaysia-born Singapore citizen told TODAY how he took up citizenship two years ago, in the middle of creating the book. “I was trying to meet the challenge put forth by the PAP (People’s Action Party) that someone without a stake in the country, who could run off at any time, shouldn’t be offering critiques of Singapore, which I knew this book would be doing at some levels,” he had said.

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