Singapore

Sonny Liew talks arts funding and the future at Singapore Coffee Festival

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew met with fans and autographed copies of his award-winning The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye at the Singapore Coffee Festival on Saturday.

In a half-hour lunchtime chat with Ms Fiona Chan, head of group strategy and analytics at Singapore Press Holdings, he discussed the state of arts funding in Singapore, his creative process, and his plans for his new book.

It was the 42-year-old's first public appearance since he became the first Singaporean to win at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Oscars of the comics industry.

The Malaysia-born Singapore citizen took home three awards out of the six he was nominated for.

Asked about whether the state should fund the arts, he said: "I don't think the idea that the arts should be totally weaned off state funding makes sense, because in Singapore, the government is involved in everything.

Despite the fact that we are supposedly a free market, nothing exists in Singapore without some kind of state infrastructure. It's like saying that healthcare should be privatised - it doesn't make sense in a Singapore context."

"But having said that," he added, "more private funding would be a good thing."

Liew's win has put the issue of arts funding in the spotlight again. In 2015, the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew a $8,000 publishing grant after the book's publication because it "potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions".

The book, which is published by Epigram Books locally and by American imprint Pantheon overseas, depicts founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong, and refers to historical incidents such as the Hock Lee Bus Riots and the detentions without trial of alleged Marxists in Operation Spectrum in 1987.

When the NAC congratulated Liew for his Eisner wins on Facebook, it drew flak from netizens for not naming the book he won for.

Liew said the NAC has yet to reach out to him directly about these issues, but that he hopes for the chance to have an open dialogue with them.

He also spoke about his work-in-progress, a book that is tentatively set in Hong Kong and explores the concept of capitalism.

"The last three or four years, while I was working on Charlie Chan, the idea of neo-liberalism has been challenged all around the United Kingdom and United States.

"While reading articles about it, I struggled with a lot of terms and concepts like quantitative easing. I'm trying to understand history by understanding capitalism, and hopefully whatever I can understand, I can explain it in an interesting way."

Asked about his post-Eisner dreams, he said he hopes to get to a point where his commercial work and his personal, creative work can be one and the same, like for British writer Neil Gaiman, whose work is guaranteed to sell whatever he creates.

He added: "As for the comics community here, I hope one day there will be a building with studios that we can share, like what Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Film is for photography or the National Design Centre is for design."

User experience designer Fabian Lua, 35, who attended the talk, said: "I liked how it was very personal, like you were in your living room just chatting with your favourite artist.

"I was struck by what he said about there being pockets of creativity in Singapore that inspired him, like seeing local books on the shelves or going to the Substation to listen to music - even though this goes against what people tend to assume about Singapore."

Retired nurse Yin Choo, 70, said she was "very impressed" by Liew's win and had asked her friend to buy the book for his two daughters, "so they can learn about Singapore history in a different way".

coffeeGRAPHIC NOVELCOMMUNITY EVENT