After disapproval, award-winning Singapore cartoonist gets official congrats

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore officials on Monday congratulated the cartoonist who swept the international comic industry’s “Oscars”, having withdrawn his grant two years ago for portraying the country’s history in a very different way to the version taught at school.

FILE PHOTO: Singapore's skyline is seen June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

Sonny Liew won three Eisners, including Best Writer/Artist, at the annual awards at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, for his graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”.

“The National Arts Council (NAC) congratulates Sonny Liew on being the first Singaporean to bag three Eisner awards,” said a spokeswoman for the same body that withdrew a S$8,000 ($5,900) grant for the book in 2015.

At that time, an official noted that Liew’s book “potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the government and its public institutions”.

Back then, Liew had feared “Charlie Chan Hock Chye” would bomb without the NAC’s funding.

Regardless of official reservations, the book was never banned, however, and the mainstream media gave it plenty of play.

The NAC spokeswoman said the book’s content had broken the funding guidelines, but that had not stopped support for Liew in other ways, including a subsidized studio at an arts center.

“A grant withdrawal is rare, and it was unfortunate that we had to take this course of action when Sonny’s novel was published,” the spokeswoman said. “Sonny’s work, while of high artistic merit, breached our funding guidelines.”

“Charlie Chan Hock Chye” chronicles, through the eyes of a cartoonist, Singapore’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule and subsequent secession from Malaysia in 1965.

While Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first and longest serving prime minister and father of the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, dominates the official narrative of Singapore’s nationhood, Liew’s story includes the role played by Lee’s rivals.

Foremost among them was Lim Chin Siong, a trade union leader who was jailed during the independence struggle and later by Lee’s government.

The NAC has sought to move past the controversy caused by its earlier stance over Liew’s book.

“We also look forward to his first venture on stage at the NAC-commissioned Singapore International Festival of Arts,” the spokeswoman said.

The Sunday Times, a stablemate of the pro-government Straits Times, carried a photograph of the beaming 42-year-old Liew with his three awards, alongside a lengthy article also hailing his success as a first for Singapore.

Reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Nick Macfie