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ISSUE 10/2017

We do(n’t) need another (type of) hero

Forefront: By TSMP takes a break from mulling the Law, and doffs its cap to Singapore’s heroes as we celebrate Singapore’s 52nd birthday.

08 Aug 2017 — by Melvin Chan Kah Keen

Photo credit: TODAYonline

Heroes Among Us

Singapore received an early National Day present 2 weeks ago. It’s not another report on our students' top scores in the latest PISA study, or about our local universities' rising rankings against renowned institutions internationally. Neither is it to do with our world’s best airport (5 years in a row at last count), or how our national carrier maintains its iconic status amidst a slew of gulf bankrolled upstarts – the Manchester Cities of the aviation premier league if you will. No.

Rather, the good news is that our own home-grown (albeit Malaysian born) graphic novelist, Sonny Liew, has won Singapore's first ever Eisner Award, dubbed the ‘Oscars of Comics’, at San Diego Comic-Con on 22 July 2017. In fact, Liew swept 3 Eisner Awards, for his graphic novel-cum-political commentary - The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Shortly before the book's release in Singapore, the National Arts Council withdrew its cash grant for the title, citing "sensitive content" and its potential to "undermine the authority and legitimacy" of the government. The work became the best-selling local fiction title that year, making it to the bestseller lists at Amazon and The New York Times when it was published in the United States.

Interestingly, the National Arts Council congratulated Liew on his awards on its Facebook page on 24 July 2017, WITHOUT naming the work.

But this is not a discussion of lofty values like the sanctity of artistic expression, or whether political sensitivity is a valid criterion in the allocation of public funds. Instead, it begs the question: How do we identify our national heroes, and should we aspire that our sons and daughters be Sonny Liews?

Schooling a Nation of Heroes

Speaking of national heroes, the same weekend brought news that bona fide national hero Joseph Schooling had broken his own Asian record in the men’s 50m butterfly enroute to the final at the FINA World Championships in Budapest. No doubt, if he had won gold at the World Championships, we would have allocated a First Class seat on our iconic airline and rolled out the red carpet at our world’s best airport to welcome him home. And why not? His achievements are to be celebrated, a just reward for years of hard work, dedication and commitment. More pertinently, Jo Schooling, like so many other athletes before him, is worthy of being a national hero, embodying values that we collectively agree we should all aspire to.

Photo credit: The Business Times

For the better part of the last 50 years, we have caned, chided, and more recently cajoled our children to study hard to earn a place in prestigious universities, and better still on coveted government scholarships, because they represented the values that we hold dear – meritocracy and equal opportunities based on academic ability and effort. Those who succeeded were held up as examples because they represented attainable goals that every Singaporean had a fair chance of aiming for.

Sporting heroes were also uncontentious. We have always applauded our sporting heroes, especially those who succeeded beyond our shores: Tan Howe Liang, Ang Peng Siong, Fandi Ahmad. We claimed them as our own, shining a spotlight on our little red dot, and basked in their reflected glory. We admired these heroes but perhaps did not quite want our children to be like them. It is only in recent times that we have started viewing them as viable role models for our children. Jo Schooling has done this – it is now ok for our kids to put their time and energy into sport, on par with, if not at the expense of their education.

A path less travelled

As our nation prepares to celebrate its 52nd birthday, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on who we want to celebrate as heroes, who will inspire us as a nation. When Singapore turned 50, there was too much buzz around our golden jubilee – more about celebrating our past than pausing to ponder our future. Turning 51 was a relative downer – the after-party that had gone on for too long whilst still nursing a hangover from the past year’s excesses. So, reflection at 52 is apt – with middle age comes maturity, choice of heroes included.

What’s so special about Sonny Liew? We’ve celebrated artists, musicians, writers before; even actors who’ve graduated from local TV to minor speaking parts in Hollywood blockbusters. What's more, the virtuosity of Liew's work is not immediately obvious. A heartland auntie is just as likely to call his work a comic than a work of art (not that the 2 are mutually exclusive).

Sonny Liew does not fit comfortably into our pantheon of heroes because his achievement is in a less mainstream discipline. As Singapore slides into middle age, I would like to think that he serves as a subtle reminder that a part of the process of maturing as a nation includes re-examining the criteria by which we choose our heroes. Do we only immortalize those whose successes we wish to share by association? Or should our heroes reflect our changing aspirations, that we would encourage our children to follow in their path? If the latter, then we must ask ourselves if we are ready to embrace less mainstream pathways, not just as the purview of outliers like Liew, but as a worthy pursuit by all, with the encouragement of the establishment.

Now I don’t expect a flood of parents encouraging their doodling offspring to put “graphic novelist” in their next term essay on what they want to be when they grow up. For now, let us pause a moment and applaud Sonny Liew, not just for winning an international award, not even for doing something that no Singaporean has previously done, ever; but for letting us know that there are other pathways of aspiration and achievement.

As a post-script, it is also heartening that the NAC has extended its congratulations to Sonny Liew. While we may not all agree on whether his grant should have been withdrawn, there is at least no quarrel that his awards should be celebrated.

Congratulations, Sonny Liew. And thank you for Singapore's early birthday present. We celebrate your work, even if it remains unnamed.

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