A storm is brewing in the Singapore arts scene as creative artists, already fuming over the National Arts Council's (NAC) decision to pull $8,000 worth of grants from Sonny Liew's award winning The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, now taking aim at a quarterly literature anthology.
The anthology in question is the long time running Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. In an editorial posted on 3 July, the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore had this to say about Sonny Liew and the NAC's catch-22 situation.
"The National Arts Council (NAC) that had accorded him that Young Artist Award in 2010 congratulated him on Facebook last Monday, and was at once belted with stones from people who don't live in glasshouses, mostly snickering that the statutory board hadn't named the book that had won because it had withdrawn its SGD 8,000 publishing grant on account of "sensitive content". Some even criticised the delayed response to the win – perhaps 24/7ers unaware that Monday is the day most people actually get back to work.
But having pulled the grant, there's really nothing the NAC can do to get this one right. Go through the scenarios. If it's quick to congratulate Sonny, it's opportunistically jumping first on the bandwagon. If it names the book, it's two-faced. If it doesn't congratulate Sonny, it's petty-minded. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
From outside of the arts bubble, this would be a bizarre state of affairs. Consider a scenario whereby an artist or arts group accepts money from say an online shopping platform, and then puts up a play or an installation piece that trashes the company's delivery. Wouldn't that company quickly pull funding? Yet the NAC may be the only organisation funding the arts whose grant recipients routinely expect to have no stake in the outcomes. Often this position hides behind some mutterings about public monies, in full confidence that no one would actually run a survey among the public crowds of Bedok and Woodlands as to whether their works should be funded. Meanwhile, in the real world, funding comes with conditions, and if artists are not happy with the conditions set by whichever organisation is offering funding, the only real option is to decline that funding.
To his credit, Sonny himself was mature enough to recognise this when asked to comment, noting that "The NAC is clearly not some monolithic all-powerful organisation, but rather one made up of many disparate individuals, many of whom are trying to do their best, as part of a relatively small branch of the government, acting under the constraints of ministers and ministries… I think it is often the system that determines outcomes, whatever the actual intentions of individuals within it." In other words, he has acknowledged objectively that there was a point of view and a rationale to the original grant decision even if it did not turn out in his favour. And if I were a disparate individual in the NAC, I would be thinking, based off that, this is someone I should continue to work with.
QLRS has never taken NAC funding, precisely because we value our independence and the space to comment on the NAC's practices wherever we feel necessary. Without funding to do this on a full-time footing, we're often just juggling schedules to fit around this voluntary service. In my case I had travel in July and some other literary arts commitments as well (and let's not even talk about work), so I'm chuffed to have got this out on time, with a strong suite of poems kicking off the issue. Kai Chai also had scheduling challenges and sent through a solid short story set on T-1, but we managed to make it turn things around. There is also a detailed survey on the poetic view of aging from Manfred Weidhorn, alongside critical reviews of Balli Kaur Jaswal and Catherine Lim. Reviews constitute another area possibly hashtagged DIYD&DIYD… and hopefully these will be read in full consciousness of the presence of a point of view and a rationale."
Local literary notable, Alfian Sa'at, who published his note on his Facebook today, took issue with the QLRS stance that the NAC's decision to withdraw funds from Sonny Liew was comparable to a commercial entity withdrawing funds for a commissioned art piece that criticized the company itself.
Alfian's post drew support comments from other netizens, who supported his sentiments and slammed QLRS, including activist journalist Kirsten Han.
One netizen, Luke Lu, reasoned that Singapore will unfortunately continue to allow such things to happen, because Singaporeans have become comfortable or do not care enough about the government's pervasive influence in every sector of Singapore society. The only way forward, he concluded, was for Singaporeans to stand up and push back against this influence in the future.