The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye: Demythologising the Singapore Story

Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye tells the story of the eponymous cartoonist, who came of age in post-World War II Singapore, in the turbulent years of self-government, merger, separation and independence. Chan documents that period of riots and unrest in a series of vignettes – all vivid allegories about the politics of the times. This biography, however, is fictional, as is Chan himself. The novel is merely a conduit through which Liew offers his take on Singapore’s history, development and style of governance. As a work of historical revisionism, it challenges conventional understandings of Singapore’s past. As a work of metafiction, it calls on the reader to treat narratives with scepticism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Arts Council withdrew a publishing grant for the novel shortly after its publication in May 2015, citing “sensitive content” which “potentially undermined the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions”. As Holden observes, this was part of a larger pattern of punitive action taken against artists who flout the party line.[1] But in trying to silence Liew, the National Arts Council inadvertently amplified his message. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye went on to become a national bestseller and has since received widespread acclaim, winning the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016 and three Eisner Awards in 2017.

“Sinkapor Inks” in particular stands out – for exposing the forgotten underbelly of Singapore’s economic development, for presenting an alternative to the romanticised Singapore Story, for undermining state-sponsored political socialisation. At the same time, as a work of historiographic metafiction, it encourages a sense of scepticism towards all narratives, even its own. Implicitly, it demonstrates that the past is contested rather than immutable, plural rather than singular. It supports a vision of Singaporean history that is inclusive, participatory and egalitarian.

So how does “Sinkapor Inks” construct the history of Singapore’s post-independence development? Why is it considered controversial? Where the state and the artist disagree, whose voice matters more? Or should we accept both and stop thinking of the past in the singular? The answers to these questions provide insight into the politics of historiography, remembering and forgetting, into the competing constructions and revisionisms of national myths.

 

A New Singapore Story

“Sinkapor Inks” depicts Singapore as a stationery supply company run by a ruthless boss, satirising the draconian measures the People’s Action Party (PAP) government took against students, the press and civil society from independence to the 1980s. This period of Singapore’s history, according to Liew, is far less romantic than official accounts would suggest. The remarkable progress from “Third World to First” was tainted by the emergence of authoritarian rule, often rationalised in the name of vulnerability and survival but ultimately designed to silence debate and dissent.[2] This critique is captured in the persecution of outspoken employees from the Newsletter Department – through browbeating, financial penalties and, for Mr So-And-So, even outright imprisonment in the “janitor’s closet”. The closet symbolises indefinite detention without trial. And just as it is used to punish innocent but potentially problematic employees, so the Internal Security Act is used to suppress free speech and quash political opposition.[3] Liew’s revisionism here is rhetorically legible because paratextual notes at the bottom of the page situate it within the context of the Singapore Story, a widely accepted founding myth about the struggle for survival and the need for tough leadership.[4] But as the arbitrary detention of Mr So-And-So implies, “Sinkapor Inks” offers a contrary perspective: that post-independence political repression was motivated by narrow partisan interests rather than legitimate national security concerns.[5] In undermining the Singapore Story, Liew questions Singaporean common sense and the authoritarianism it has come, insidiously, to normalise.

Liew also attacks the Singapore Story by caricaturing its protagonist, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee’s counterpart and homophonic namesake in the comic is Sinkapor Inks boss Mr Hairily, who is drawn with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions (Figure 1). His bulging eyes, furrowed eyebrows, bared teeth and clenched fists convey aggression and uncontrollable anger, all compounded by his combative tone and heated exchange with Mr Salesman. At the same time, the red background is used affectively, symbolising the fear that permeates the Sinkapor Inks office under the irascible Mr Hairily. These visual and textual elements work in tandem, not only to characterise Mr Hairily as violent, despotic and unhinged but also to accentuate his Otherness from the reader. Political caricatures ridicule public officials through distortion and deformation, and the caricature of Lee as such satirises his authoritarian leanings, weakening his position as statesman and national hero. Above all, it destabilises deeply held beliefs about the Singapore Story, introducing new narratives in their place.

Figure 1. Mr Hairily and Mr Salesman cross swords over the sale of office equipment.

In this regard, “Sinkapor Inks” acts as a counterweight to the self-congratulatory amnesia of Singaporean exceptionalism, that is, the tendency to see Singaporean history as a straightforward and romantic journey from “Third World to First”. Breaking the fourth wall, Liew enumerates some uncomfortable truths about Singapore’s post-independence development, including detention without trial, crackdowns on the press, and the loss of Chinese culture and education. The explicit authorial intrusion here suggests that “Sinkapor Inks” serves a didactic purpose: to provoke critical engagement with the past. Amnesia is problematic precisely because memory can be deployed for particular partisan agendas. When marginal voices are deliberately excluded from the public consciousness, personal agency wanes, producing a political culture that is acquiescent at best and apathetic at worst.[6] Thus, “Sinkapor Inks” is implicated in the politics of remembering and forgetting. It breathes fresh discursive life into the nuances that are ignored or explained away in the Singapore Story.

 

Us Versus Them

“Sinkapor Inks” does not just advance new narratives; it also subverts official memory as constructed by the PAP. An ideational conflict has thus emerged, pitting the artist against the state. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in Liew’s rendering of Operation Spectrum (Figure 2). The 1987 “Marxist conspiracy” is facetiously labelled as “a Richard Marxist conspiracy” while the plot to overthrow the government is sardonically presented as a plot to promote the music of Richard Marx, whose debut album was released that same year. Political satire and absurdist humour here work in tandem to undermine the truth of those allegations and to question received historical narratives. More fundamentally, official memory itself is criticised as fallible, biased and unreliable.

Figure 2. Mr Hairily accuses some employees of plotting a “Richard Marxist conspiracy” and extracts a confession from their “fellow conspirators”.

Liew’s revisionism has prompted pushback from the political establishment, just as the works of Thum Ping Tjin, Tan Pin Pin and others have before. One reason the past is so fiercely protected is because it “embodies and discloses forms of human possibility – possible ways of life, hopes and fears, aspirations, fulfilled and unfulfilled”.[7] In other words, it sets the boundaries within which society interprets reality, formulates policy and plans for the future. The PAP has put this principle into practice, institutionalising its version of history to secure hegemony, defined by Gramsci as political domination in which coercion operates under the guise of consent and cultural common sense achieved through ideological work.[8] National Education is a case in point. From a young age, children are conditioned to accept certain immutable “truths” – vulnerability, economic pragmatism, community before self, survival through the PAP.[9] These lessons are reinforced through rote learning, the very antithesis of critical thinking and historical interpretation. Years of state-sponsored political socialisation have disabused citizens of the need to actively remember their own past and produced a populace amenable to paternalistic rule.[10] Historiography, then, is partisan, an instrument for the PAP government to regulate discourse, marginalise dissent, manufacture consensus and, above all, gain legitimacy. This explains the controversy Liew has occasioned. “Sinkapor Inks” is controversial not so much because it promotes revisionism as because it threatens to open a Pandora’s box of competing claims and interests – to upset the political status quo.

Ultimately, though, public memory is embedded in unequal power relations, with “Sinkapor Inks” occupying a subordinate position vis-à-vis the state. Liew acknowledges as much, choosing to project his arguments through the persona of Charlie Chan. Yet Chan is himself implicated in those same hierarchies. The preface to “Sinkapor Inks” discusses why he never tried to publish his political cartoons – fear of retaliation, self-censorship, even a sense of inadequacy. Such is the fate of artists, real and fictional, who deviate from the party line. The power differential is further emphasised by the debate about supply chains and Ong Beng markers. On the one hand, customers want to try different brands. On the other, management insists that Ong Beng is the best. Similarly, calls for greater political liberalisation are neutralised by out-of-bounds markers, the unwritten boundaries of acceptable public discussion. And because these boundaries are so vague, the natural tendency to err on the side of caution exerts a chilling effect on free speech. Moreover, by restricting access to archival sources, the state effectively decides what from the past is relevant and worthy of being remembered.[11] Alternative narratives such as those Liew constructs must therefore negotiate interlocking systems of power and control. Memory work becomes a site of contestation and resistance.

 

Singapore Stories

To say that the state speaks with a louder voice is not to say that it speaks with a superior one. History, after all, is constructed, and nobody can claim monopoly – not the artist nor the powers that be.[12] “Sinkapor Inks” rejects the binary distinction between dominant and marginal narratives, seeking instead to pluralise and therefore democratise the past. As Holden argues, it is a historiographic metafiction that problematises the process of narrativisation.[13] Specifically, the interplay between Chan as comics artist and Liew as presenter creates multiple layers of authorship and perspective, self-reflexively emphasising the constructedness of the text and in turn reminding the reader that history is likewise socially and discursively constructed. In terms of spatial layout, the Liew persona offering paratextual commentary in real time along the bottom of the page disrupts, or at least colours, the narrative progress of the comic, thereby blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. For Liew, the two are interwoven, and dominant and marginal narratives cannot be pigeonholed into distinct discursive spaces. In the same way, the reader is prompted to reconcile individual biography with national history.

The reader is invested in the stories “Sinkapor Inks” tells in large part because of its form. As the saying goes, the medium is the message. Closure in comics – the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” – allows the audience to take on the role of partner and collaborator through imagination.[14] And just as comics encourage viewer participation, so Liew encourages the reader to critically engage with the construction of narratives, even his own. In this regard, “Sinkapor Inks” is not subversive but instructive. It calls on the reader to exercise reasoned judgement and move beyond a monolithic view of the past. It offers a path towards informed and active citizenship. Above all, it supports a vision of Singaporean history that is inclusive, participatory and egalitarian.

That “Sinkapor Inks” allegorises Singaporean history should not detract from the force of its message. Its purpose, far from providing factual alternatives to state-sponsored narratives, is to encourage scepticism about the way in which historical evidence is recorded. The Singapore Story and its contenders are not binary opposites locked in a mutually antagonistic relationship. In studying “Sinkapor Inks” and indeed the novel as a whole, therefore, the task is not to decide which side – official or vernacular – is superior but to imagine how these various strands can coexist, as an awareness of Singapore’s pluralistic past will foster a deeper sense of self, society and national identity.

 

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[1] Philip Holden, “‘Is it manipulative? Sure. But that’s how you tell stories’: The graphic novel, metahistory and the artist in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 52, no. 4 (2016): 511.

[2] Sonny Liew, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2015), 232.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Mark Baildon and Suhaimi Afandi, “The Myth that a Singular Historical Narrative Moulds Good Citizens” in Living with Myths in Singapore, edited by Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-Tat Chia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017), 30.

[5] Liew, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, 234.

[6] Hussin Mutalib, “Illiberal democracy and the future of opposition in Singapore,” Third World Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2000): 325.

[7] Kwok Kian-Woon et al., “Our Place in Time: A Preliminary Reflection” in Our Place in Time: Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999), 5.

[8] Terence Chong, “Embodying society’s best: Hegel and the Singapore state,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 36, no. 3 (2006): 290.

[9] Loh Kah Seng, “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no. 2 (1998): 2.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Loh Kah Seng, “Encounters at the Gates” in The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History, edited by Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khiun (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010), 8.

[12] Lysa Hong and Huang Jianli, “New Testament: Singapore and Its Tensed Pasts” in The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), 13.

[13] Holden, “Is it manipulative? Sure. But that’s how you tell stories,” 513.

[14] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 63.

 

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About the author 

Jonathan is a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. He is interested in literature, politics, language, time and memory. Some of his favourite authors include Dickens, Orwell, Ishiguro and Kundera. You probably haven’t seen him before: he’s usually firmly ensconced in his room.

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Header image: Screenshot from an Epigram Books promotional video

Featured image and in-text images: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye