Man at His Best

November Man Of Our Time: Sonny Liew

For taking control of the narrative.

BY Wayne Cheong | Jan 1, 2017 | Arts

Photograph by Chng Dju-Lian. Styling by Eugene Lim.


The story: the Malaysia-born Liew came over to Singapore to study from an early age. Living here most of his life, he was soon drawn to the 2011 General Elections. He felt politically engaged through social media and by talking to the people around him, like his friends, who were volunteering with the contesting parties.

“That’s something you can do as a citizen, not as a PR,” Liew says. He wanted to be more involved so he traded in his PR for citizenship. After all, if you want to affect change, to critique a country’s policies, wouldn’t it make sense if you were a citizen of that land?

Liew decided to tackle the “official” history that most Singaporeans know, about how this country gained its sovereignty, the mainstream narrative that we’re often spoon-fed via our state-sanctioned history books. But independent studies reveal other sides to our history—testimonies from people who knew Lim Chin Siong.

We have the broad strokes of Singapore’s transformation from a country left without resources and outside support into a metropolis within decades under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, but we miss out on the trampling of civil liberties, the counter-viewpoints, the minutiae.

Such information is available, but Liew needed to sift through the noise of a victor’s history. Throughout his research, he was careful when depicting the facts of the matter.

“The basic story needed to be fact-checked,” he says as they consulted historians and lawyers to see if the work contained anything erroneous or libellous.

The examination into this “secret history” is refracted through the lens of an autobiography in a comic book medium as a way to get people to “approach the material from a new angle, outside of traditional history textbooks”. Within the pages of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye are endnotes to supporting articles.

When it comes to regulating information, unlike certain countries’ blunt curtailment of one’s right to speak, Singapore’s methods are refined legalese. “They don’t ban books,” Liew says. “But they do find other more subtle means to restrict access.” And it seems like a trial of sorts: the end goal is knowledge and the restrictions are the obstacles; many throw in the towel, but the rare few persevere to find access. It’s all part of the dance as it is with Singapore’s past.

And so it goes that days before publication, the National Arts Council, who supported the creation of Charlie Chan with an SGD8,000 publishing grant, rescinded the money because its contents “undermine the government’s authority and legitimacy”.

The withdrawal inadvertently sparked interest, which led to Charlie Chan selling out its entire first print run of 1,000 copies within a week. Favourable reviews flooded in, both stateside and internationally.

“Oddly, I didn’t hear from any government officials what they thought of my book,” Liew says. “I’m curious if anyone read it or what they felt about it. The part of the feedback that’s missing is from the authorities themselves—I don’t know if anyone from the PAP has read the book or what they think about the contents beyond that official statement. Professor Tommy Koh gave a very nice blurb for it. But no word from anyone else.”

And if the book sales weren’t validation enough, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye took home “Book of the Year” at the Singapore Book Awards 2016 and the Singapore Literature Prize 2016.

The 42-year-old author and artist embark on his next graphic novel. “I’m going to start my new graphic novel soon,” Liew says, “but I don’t think I can devote my time fully to it though, because of the financial logistics.” He thought that financial aid would help alleviate the burden but when Liew applied for a Creation Grant through the NAC, it was a lot less than what he hoped to get.

The lack of funding in the arts isn’t a localised problem but a global one. It’s not uncommon for artists to take on commercial work and their own personal projects. Especially, in Singapore where “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”.

“It isn’t so much much that the NAC does not understand comics as a medium,” Liew clarifies, “but that as far as grants go, their support for comics is somewhat inefficient.” The only for improvement, according to Liew, it so open up a dialogue “between creators and the authorities.”

Meanwhile, Liew goes about his own way to promote local comic books. He launched Speech Bubble, a month-long event for artists, writers and everyone else to bond over the medium. Held at the National Library, the public got to know about the language of comic books, how to succeed financially as a freelancer, and what the graphic novel process entails.

The arts scene will face its share of resistance but, as Liew demonstrated, it will be a story devoid of colour unless you take reins of your own narrative.