SINGAPORE - When artist Johnny Lau was commissioned by the National Library Board to use his canny Singaporean toon Mr Kiasu to promote information literacy, he decided to make the new book a test in itself.
On the spine of the 80-page graphic novel published in December, the title is Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Make Sure. On the cover page, it is Mr Kiasu: Think Sure. Open the book and the inside cover flap proclaims that the real title is Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Want To Be Sure.
Letting the readers decide what the right title is, if any, ties in neatly with the board's information literacy campaign S.U.R.E. (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate). About 6,000 copies of the book are being given out free to winners of weekly online contests, which test users' understanding of the S.U.R.E. principles: check Sources, Understand the context, Research and Evaluate all information. In the next three months, the book will also be online for readers.
Lau, 50, who is single, enjoyed working on the project, though his first reaction when asked to resurrect the character after 13 years was: "No way. He's in retirement now, let him stay there." What changed? "I don't see what I do as art. It's a form of social commentary," he says. "I feel like Mr Kiasu can play a different role now. He can help to disseminate positive messages in a non-government way."
Fans of Mr Kiasu need not worry that the avaricious, bespectacled character has changed much. All "positive messages" are buried in the subtext and helpful end-notes of this latest adventure, in which Mr Kiasu seeks to win fame on Facebook, keep an important date with his girlfriend and stay out of trouble at work.
The toon was originally created in 1990 by Lau with his National Service pal James Suresh - who left the comic in 1996 - plus illustrator Lim Yu Cheng. Mr Kiasu won Singaporeans' hearts with his must-grab-it-all attitude and 11 comic books published by the partners' Comix Factory company topped bestseller lists here.
Mr Kiasu also featured in advertisements for McDonald's as well as a TV series in 2001, starring Chew Chor Meng. However, licensing did not yield the economic rewards the partners hoped for. The merchandising company they set up was reportedly $300,000 in debt by 1998.
From 2006 to last year, Lau was creative director for Gallery Hotel and worked with the then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to invite young designers from around the world to Singapore to redesign hotel rooms under the Creative Youth Xchange programme.