Monday, 30 April 2012

New comics frontier awaits, Colin Goh

By Colin Goh, The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2012

A few days ago, I was informed that my column will end on May 13 (see below). To me, that e-mail was the proverbial Fall of the Other Shoe that I'd been anticipating for ages.

When The Straits Times first approached me to write a column, I was sceptical. At the time, as the public face of and an outspoken advocate of Singlish, I was somewhat controversial. 'It's probably a joke, so I'll accept,' I told the Wife. 'Anyway, I'm sure they'll fire me after two months.' That was in 2003.

I'm not very sentimental about letting go of this column. Nine years is a pretty long time to be doing anything. I'm grateful for having been given the privilege to air my views in the country's flagship paper, despite disagreeing, often publicly, with its official stance on many issues. I've learnt over the years that The Straits Times is not quite the monolithic state newsletter as its detractors claim and its journalists are not all yes-sir- yes-sir-three-bags-full-sir types. Like any media company nowadays, it is a complex organisation buffeted by even more complex forces.

The ending of this column has also come, felicitously, as I am about to launch into a brand-new phase of my life. I say brand-new, but ironically, it involves returning to my first love - cartoons and comics.

In a few days, I will be flying to California to attend the official launch by HarperCollins of a book for which I drew all the cartoons: Search Inside Yourself by Tan Chade Meng which boasts a foreword by Daniel Goleman, the authority on emotional intelligence, as well as endorsements from the Dalai Lama and former US president Jimmy Carter.

It is based on the programme that Meng runs at Google, where his official title is Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny), and whose aim is to cultivate one's emotional intelligence as a first step to creating better world conditions. Working on the book was a life-changing experience, firstly, because the scientific data Meng cites showed me what an emotional moron I've been all this time, and secondly, while crafting the cartoons, I was reminded how I really, really enjoyed drawing comics.

I'd had some success with film- making but its complicated processes never gave me the same bone-deep satisfaction as comics. Comics were a major reason I'd moved to New York in the first place, but I'd shelved it as a career option when I saw how unfavourable the climate had become for independent creators, a situation that worsened as bookstores, comic shops, publishers, magazines and newspapers started dying like flies. But with the advent of e-books and the iPad, there was a flicker of hope again.

Thanks to the new disintermediating trend, we need not struggle to figure out how to bypass the gatekeepers that guard every media industry here in the US, from publishing to film, or worry about stores keeping our books in stock or inventory piling up in some warehouse. Via Apple's app store, we're selling our comic app directly to readers in more than 50 countries.

But the path ahead is completely enshrouded in fog. There are no precedents to follow and the landscape of e-publishing is constantly shifting. We are also worried how sustainable the business is, considering how people have no trouble shelling out $4 for a cup of coffee, but grumble if an app costs more than 99 cents. Still, as the Wife always says to me: 'When others say dun play-play, that's precisely when we should play.'

Besides, despite the uncertainty, I know that when I sit at my desk and put pencil to paper, I feel a calm I've found nowhere else. It is also the one thing I do that never fails to make Yakuza Baby smile.

The initial response has been very promising. When the legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont saw our comic app, he exclaimed: 'This is s****** brilliant!' As his groundbreaking Uncanny X-Men was the first comic I ever collected, to hear him say that was the best encouragement I could ever receive.

I had planned to chronicle my adventures in this new business frontier in this column, but I guess to learn more, you will now have to find me on Facebook. That is kind of nice, actually - to have my readers become friends instead.

* Keep up the good fight
By Colin Goh, The Straits Times, 13 May 2012

So this is my final column for ST. Thanks to everyone who sent messages of support and love, and for reading my scribblings these past nine years.

I suspect I was asked to write this column partly because I was stationed in New York, and could serve as a cheapskate version of the legendary Alistair Cooke and his Letter From America broadcasts for the BBC.

Like many Singaporeans, I'd come to the US craving more freedom. I deplored the heavy hands of our censors, the hydra-like involvement of our State in everything from romance to roast duck, and the compulsion to conform. I'd begun to feel like Harry Potter, his lightning bolt-shaped scar smarting when- ever Voldemort whispered inside his head. (In my case, You-Know-Who usually hissed, 'Why you so itchy backside? Just shaddup and make money!')

And New York did provide the liberation I'd sought. I could read, hear and see all sorts of stuff, from the cerebral to the crude, and no one batted an eyelid. If you disagreed or were offended, you merely voiced your own opinion and contributed to the discussion.

I was very taken with the concept of Town Hall meetings where city agencies were obliged, before proceeding with initiatives, to invite the public to share their views, often delivered less than politely. And these meetings weren't just some wayang to disguise a fait accompli; Agencies were expected to put up with criticisms and protests afterward.

I was also surprised how irrelevant my nationality was when it came to civic participation. There really was an understanding past ties shouldn't impede the free flow of ideas. Sure, New York was and is far from being a perfect place, but overall, it felt like a grown-up society.

Over the years, however, I've learnt that New York isn't representative of the whole of America and that freedom is a complex concept that too few understand and whose maintenance must be fought for constantly - even in intellectually liberal cities such as New York.

I'm particularly dismayed by the polarised state of America today, especially because it's a manufactured polarisation. Basically, there are some ultra-rich people who believe they are entitled by the mere fact of their wealth to do whatever they want, which is usually to make even more money, and that the less well-off owe their reduced circumstances merely to indolence and lack of will.

These loaded sociopaths also have no compunction in manipulating the less-educated over to their side by stoking deep-seated prejudices and insecurities. This is why, for instance, you'll find deeply impoverished people supporting billionaires who see nothing wrong with paying a much lower tax rate than everyone else, but wanting to lynch those who actually want to narrow the income gap. Why? Because the wealthy wackos keep pandering to their base's baser instincts on issues such as race, immigration, sexual orientation and religion.

If there's one lesson Singapore should take away from the present state of America, it's that we should beware the toxic combination of prosperous psychopaths and the rabidly religious.

Like many Singaporeans, I came to America believing in small government, and I still do. It's just that I now know that allowing mega-corporations or rich individuals to occupy the roles of government isn't necessarily an improvement. In fact, dislodging private players may be even more difficult than voting out politicians.

Freedom, I've learnt, isn't simply about getting to do as you wish. It's about creating the conditions where as many people as possible can achieve their aspirations, without crushing others in the process. America has long been a beacon for many, with its inclinations towards democracy, justice and meritocracy. Will Americans wake up and realise just how much cow dung their cowboys are offering them?

I'm cautiously bullish - just as I am about Singaporeans who've made some real, if patchy, progress towards more intellectual freedom over the years I've been away. Please keep up the good fight.

Once again, thanks for allowing me the privilege of writing for you. I'll also be doing some super-secret special fun stuff while in Singapore next month, so friend me on Facebook ( or e-mail me at for details.

No comments:

Post a Comment