Return of the native wit
Book Review: By LIM CHENG TJU
MY SINGAPORE: Morgan Chua.
Published by Singapore National Printers
Morgan Chua has come home after a long spell in Hong Kong and launched a book of Singapore cartoons that could test the boundaries of the nation's out-of-bounds markers
DESPITE HISTORY has a way of evening things out. The official annals may be written by the victors, but the passage of time, just as it is capable of easing all pain, can also provide a different perspective to certain stories, histories and myths. Such is the case with Morgan Chua and his new book of cartoons.
Titled My Singapore, it is a 118-page tome of Singapore's history told in cartoons, with comments and dates and figures.
Chua, whom Asia Magazine calls the ""legendary cartoonist'' of Singapore, drew political cartoons for The Singapore Herald in 1971 which contributed to its demise.
The Herald was accused by the Government of being hostile to national interests and security. Chua, at that time a 22-year-old artist for the paper, was asked to do his first cartoon for the Herald in its defence.
His contribution: a drawing of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on a tank threatening to crush a baby symbolising the Herald. That did not go down too well.
Chua did a handful more cartoons, after which he left for Hongkong, so as to ""keep an arm's length from the influence of politicians''. He was with the weekly magazine Far Eastern Economic Review for 22 years, rising up the ranks to the position of creative director. He continued to draw political cartoons about Asian countries, including Singapore.
With the handover of Hongkong back to China in 1997, Chua retired and returned here. The Singaporean felt it was a good time to do a cartoon book about his country's history -- from Sang Nila Utama to the present. He decided to employ one of cartooning medium's most effective tools, but hardly used here -- political caricatures.
The prodigal cartoonist has come home to roost finally.
The result is an interesting book, not just in terms of the state of political cartooning here, but also political expression in general. The out-of-bounds (OB) markers for this form of expression are unclear, marking out a shifting boundary that is left vague.
So, while then-Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo mentioned in Parliament in 1995 that political caricatures would be allowed as long as they were done in good taste and without any malicious intentions, the issue of who defines this ""good taste'' is raised in the 1998 Zunzi Wong incident at the Singapore Art Museum.
A Hongkong artist, Wong did a caricature of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for the ARX5 exhibition, held at SAM.
It was reported that minutes before the official opening, this work on Singapore's strict laws -- which showed Mr Goh as a gardener spraying insecticide labelled ""Fines'' and Mr Lee patting his back -- was taken down.
Why that happened is still unclear as the parties gave differing, even conflicting, accounts of the event. It is not certain whether SAM was reacting to official objection to the work or if they were merely anticipating the problems.
Therein lies the difficulty of drawing political cartoons -- one is not sure of the OB markers. Thus, most cartoonists will not draw caricatures and most editors will not encourage such works.
It seems, then, that while it is all right to make fun of leaders in other countries in our daily staple of editorial cartoons, it is not so correct if ours are spoofed.
This is why My Singapore, despite all its editorial flaws (and there are several unforgivable typos and errors), is a book that could test the parameters with its caricatures of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lim Chin Siong, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Chin Peng and others who shaped Singapore's history in one way or another.
There were two earlier cartoon books featuring political caricatures in the 1990s. Hello Chok Tong Goodbye Kuan Yew (1991) by George Nonis was a humorous look at the new generation of PAP leaders led by PM Goh Chok Tong. And To Tame A Tiger: The Singapore Story (1995) by Joe Yeoh was a conservative depiction of the past.
Compared with these two books, My Singapore stands out, as Chua took some chances. Some uneasy topics such as the cartoon on the failure of the Suzhou Industrial Park are featured.
Just as the light humour of Hello Chok Tong Goodbye Kuan Yew reflects the optimism of the early years of the Next Lap (one of PM Goh's early blueprint for Singapore's future), and To Tame A Tiger's conservatism may be a reaction to the unwelcome politicisation of the arts in 1994 (forum theatre and performance art), My Singapore is also a sign of the times.
In this global age characterised by the free flow of information over the Net and press liberalisation by the state, My Singapore signals the possibility that we may have reached a point in time where we are privy to another view of the past.
Hopefully, space is opening up for all parties to say their piece, in whatever fashion they want -- whether they are memoirs (SM Lee's second volume and Chin Peng's long-awaited recollections of the Malayan Communist Party) or cartoons.
Still, it is a process that will take time. For those who followed Chua's career in Hongkong, the cartoons in My Singapore may seem tame by comparison, even bloodless, more anecdotal than critical.
Indeed, the best stuff covers topics dealing with pre-1959 days, like the reference to the much-rumoured playboy ways of ex-Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock. Certainly, one is hard pressed to find anything as biting as his work from the radical 1970s days of FEER.
But as a cartoonist, Chua has improved leaps and bounds in terms of his line work and pen strokes.
Although famous for his political satire, not all things are political for him in My Singapore as he also sees the socio-cultural development of Singapore as an important part of our historical landscape.
As a humorist, he throws a quirky perspective on the connection between 1950s striptease artist Rose Chan's python stage act and actress Michelle Goh's 1997 cover shot with a python for a local magazine.
On a more poignant note, personal history turns out to be as important as political pasts as Chua pays tribute to his late uncle, a constable killed during the Hock Lee bus riots, Snoopy creator Charles Schulz, and two Singaporean photographers killed during the Vietnam War. Perhaps one can read My Singapore in the spirit of Singapore 21, where everyone counts.
A step forward has been taken. Will there be two steps