Singaporean comic book artist Sonny Liew will be returning a National Arts Council (NAC) grant for his upcoming work, in what he says is an effort to untangle himself from the compromises of state funding.

Liew, 42, had been awarded a S$19,000 (RM59,000) Creation Grant from the NAC for his new comic book. He has received the first part of it, but is in the process of returning the sum, which he declined to disclose.

He has also turned down an invitation to speak at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which is organised by the NAC.

He said: “With the SWF and the Creation Grant, I’m trying to simplify things on my end, to not get too tangled up in the compromises involved in a relationship where genuine dialogue is so limited.

“Of course it’s not really possible, and the idea that you can separate the arts entirely from the state is a total pipe dream. But you try your best, and hope that it is enough to focus on the work – make good comics, improve the craft.”

Liew’s relationship with the NAC came under strain in 2015 when it withdrew an S$8,000 (RM25,000) grant for his graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye ahead of its publication, citing content that “potentially undermined the authority or legitimacy” of the Singapore Government and its public institutions.

Arts grant controversy as Sonny Liew returns cash to Singapore Government

Sonny Liew with the three Eisners he won for his comic book, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Photo: Epigram Books

The book has since gone on to make history, with Liew becoming the first Singaporean to win at the coveted Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, widely considered the comic book industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. He won three out of the six awards he was nominated for (see Star2’s story on his wins here).

The NAC later drew flak for a terse congratulatory message on Facebook that did not name the work he won for. However, Liew went on to create theatre production Becoming Graphic as part of the NAC-commissioned Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Liew said that while in the past he would apply for all the grants an artist could possibly get from the NAC, things have “entered uncertain waters” in the aftermath of the publication of The Art Of Charlie Chan.

“The official stance as far as I can make out is that they can support me as an artist, but not the book itself,” he said.

“It’s an odd schizophrenic approach, with rather grey boundaries – how do you separate the cartoonist from her or his best known work to date?”

He added that the NAC communicates with art practitioners from behind a “veil of bureaucratese”.

Director of sector development (literary arts) at the NAC May Tan confirmed that Liew will be returning his 2016 Creation Grant to the NAC and added that during a recent dialogue with Liew, he had informed the council that “the mutually agreed project milestone schedule now does not work for him”.

“We respect his decision and wish him success in completing his new work.

“The Creation Grant supports the incubation of new works and the timeline of up to 18 months allows the council and artist to establish a reasonable scope of work that would be developed,” added Tan. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network