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Festival Director Ong Keng Sen Wants You to Get Involved in Life


Festival Director Ong Keng Sen Wants You to Get Involved in Life
Mr Ong Keng Sen, Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts (Photography by Jeannie Ho and Image courtesy of Singapore International festival of Arts)

Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) returns for another bigger and better edition this year, with the pre-festival and the main festival running back-to-back. This ambitious programme is the dream of Festival Director and veteran of the performing arts, Mr Ong Keng Sen, who will be directing the festival for the fourth and last time.

In the following interview, Mr Ong takes time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on how the festival has evolved over the years, and what his hopes for the future of the festival will be. This year’s theme of Enchantment is one that seems very close to his heart and to find a way to reactivate and recharge festival-goers, through the carefully-curated experiential events that focus on humanism and a sense of community.


Time has flown by so quickly and SIFA is in its fourth edition under your watch. Let’s go back in time and talk about how this whole festival has evolved. What can we expect to be different about the programming this year?

I think starting from the very end of the question of how it is different this year, the festival is very much more involved in participatory projects, in the sense there are different ways in which the publics – and I speak of this in plural, meaning the different audiences – to participate in the processes of the Festival. For example, we have Lizard On The Wall by K. Rajagopal. It is a film to be made during The O.P.E.N., our pre-festival of ideas, made directly with audiences as actors. K. Rajagopal will plot the movement of the cameras in such a way to capture these audiences who will attend the event as actors portraying guests in a Punjabi wedding inspired by Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel “Inheritance”.


So audiences arrive at the start of evening. They are expected to stay for 3.5 hours, with 1.5 hours briefing on how to do the scene, with some rehearsal and they then begin filming. So Rajagopal needs to plot a kind of choreographic sequence for the night. For me this is an amazing experience, not just for the audience but also the artists. Both parties are in the artistic process. The audiences are not seated in an auditorium watching a film, but impacting in some way the process of making a film. The camera is moving amongst them capturing whatever they are doing – be it eating, laughing, talking, and singing. So that’s one example of a project which is very participatory and immersive and gets the audience close to the art making process. They are on the inside so to speak, not on the outside; they are the players, they are the protagonists.


In that sense, we started the journey promising this pre-festival of ideas called The O.P.E.N. and as the alphabets in the acronym suggest OPEN, PARTICIPATE, ENGAGE, NEGOTIATE, it does mean that from the very beginning, we didn’t see the Festival as a consumer festival. 

We saw the Festival as an exploratory and educational experience with the audience. During these 4 years, we experimented with different sorts of public engagement projects and in this final year, we land squarely on the very foundation of our connection with our audiences.

I think the Festival is taking this idea of participation very seriously and hence the number of projects in that direction.


“Lizard On The Wall” by K. Rajagopal
Image courtesy of Akanga Film Asia and Singapore International Festival of Arts


Could you tell us a bit about your responsibilities as Festival Director? What do your responsibilities entail?

I think my central responsibility is to set the bar high. What do I mean by that? As a Festival Director, I have to believe that these projects presented in the Festival are possible and that they can be meaningful. They can be artistic and at the same time, open doors or they can be entrances to diverse publics, even those who may not know much about art.


You can see that through the 3 years, we present productions which are topical or engaging in debate such as euthanasia in 2016, when we brought in Ibsen: Ghosts by Markus&Markus which explores an individual’s right to end her life. Margot. She made that decision to end her life because she was in so much pain and the company Markus&Markus followed her in the last month of her life. The production shows the journey of this 81-year old woman, who travelled to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to die on her own terms. So at the end of the production, we see her being injected with some lethal medication and we see her die. We chose this production and like many other productions in SIFA because it offers the opportunity to debate, or discuss difficult topics that affect us in society.


In Singapore, euthanasia is not allowed, yet I felt that Ibsen: Ghosts is an important work and then convincing the team to move forward with it and then convincing the audience to come and then to discuss about it. We had very rich audience participation during the performances. That was interesting that Singaporean audiences had strong opinions and they were affected or moved by the piece; shocked, many of them. And that’s what I feel I best can do. Not just to manage and to produce, because there are many good managers. But often I ask myself why manage, or manage towards what purpose: efficient organisation? Cost effectiveness?


I believe in producing work towards a kind of philosophy about life and to share the experience in a public space with our audiences. It is not about agreeing or liking, it is about exchange, expressing diverse opinions and it is healthy to have opposing ideas and thoughts.

 We are for the richer as a society if we can learn to negotiate these diversities and the openness to move and work together, still.


This year the theme for SIFA is Enchantment and based on Jane Bennett’s definition of the word as being “…a mood of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, a sense of having one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers turned up or recharged – a shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.” How did you decide on this theme? With so many events which would you highly recommend catching?

I think this theme is for me something which is desirable. We all want to be recharged. We all want to return to something that we’ve lost. We want to live fully. Very often we have these platitudes: wake up and smell the coffee, wake up and smell the roses – something desirable.


I think the Festival has to put a theme out there that it is desirable even though it can be very dark, it is still desirable. For example, it is good for us to know where we came from in terms of our legacies, both good and bad. And once we know it, we know how to combat what is inside us. Setting a theme is always about setting some kind of positive direction that the audiences would want. It may not be as direct as “Oh I want this bunch of roses” or “I want this dark chocolate.” The theme is more than that.


It is about examining the ideas from many perspectives. Like Enchantment: on one level it has some element of Disney and very much about beauty. But at the same time to find some kind of twist to that and Jane Bennet herself talks a lot about it in her book, that Enchantment is also about not becoming cynical about life. Not losing your involvement in life.

Only when you are enchanted with life that you get in there deep and you get in there to fight for what you believe in. To fight for life. You don’t just give up, say I give up to pollution or give up to corruption. There is a desire to fight and make life better.


Her definition had both of this. One, it is positive and desirable and the other it has a certain kind of politic to it. It is an action-oriented word. It is not just a description of beauty. It is action-oriented, which means that you can act on it. You can do something about it. You can run, you can walk, you can eat, you can fight. For me, these themes have to have some kind of action.


“Art As Res Publicae” is a public education programme about art, aimed at understanding what an artwork is and assessing whether the artwork raises our consciousness for living in a republic
Photography by Garcon Design
Image courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts


In terms of recommendations it would be hard for me to say. But I would definitely recommend everyone to begin at the very start with Art As Res Publicae at The O.P.E.N. or Art As Public Interest. And then retain the O.P.E.N. Pass and use the SIFA Friend privilege and continue on to SIFA. Thread through from the beginning.


Why Art As Res Publicae – because there has been so much discussion about art in the last few years but it is seldom by the artists, but often by activists or groups who have not watched the productions, or seen the show. They are then saying this show is bad.


So you start to ask: who should be discussing about art as public interest. Unlike other cities, Singapore is a regulated city. You can’t just spray paint a building or a flight of stairs in a public space for example. In New York you can spray paint a building, yes, you may be sued, but that’s a different matter. It is not a serious crime. But in Singapore it is a crime. So there is a need to open up dialogue and discussion with the publics and hear what they have to say about art in the public space.


And this kind of discussion as a mature society is always the promise of SIFA. SIFA comes after 37 years of Singapore Arts Festival. In a way SIFA is a Festival that commits to the fact that Singapore has matured and is maturing. And the Festival too has to take important mature steps to boldly engage with the audiences.


Asking questions related to citizenry, the stake they have in society. For example, I read a NY Times article that came out about Singapore’s land reclamation efforts. Then the question is: is this what Singaporeans want Singapore to be 10 or 20 years down the line? And if this is not what we want Singapore to be then how should we begin to participate now? So in a way this kind of choice was not available for us right?


In the 60s it was about survival. But I think that now post-60s, 50 years later, or you could say after SG50, the Festival is evolving with a maturing Singapore to also think and reflect on society, on the world we live in. Art has always been that safe place to reflect on these things.


Therefore, Arts As Res Publicae is a kind of safe moment where we want the public to step forward to discuss art openly, face-to-face. There is a sense that many people live in a culture of fear. And the engagement in discourse or public dialogue is limited, because they fear repercussions. So we have not had lots of practice on how do we say what we want to say and yet be able to accept different opinions. This is something that has to be learnt and that is why we are giving workshops to our 100 discussants, prior to them coming together to be discussants. And this kind of discussion is different from an after-show or post-show discussion.


The discussion at Art As Res Publicae require some responsibility – acknowledging that what they say can actually make a difference. Is this kind of art important to the development of a maturing Singapore society? These statements or questions are not shots in the dark. They will have impact. So the speaker has a responsibility to consider perspectives, and engage in rational debate.


“The Unforgetting Space” by Tan Biyun is an interactive and participatory installation featuring old textbooks, dating back to the 1970s, that Tan Biyun has collected from which Tan invites audiences to select paragraphs from and retyping them.
Image courtesy of Olivia Kwok & Singapore International festival of Arts



From an overview perspective of the programme for SIFA 2017, there is definitely more focus on film and the written text, especially in the O.P.E.N films section, as well as some of the works such as “Becoming Graphic” by Sonny Liew and “The Unforgetting Space” by Tan Biyun. Why did you decide to focus on these mediums?

SIFA is responding to how Singaporean artists are now making work. If you take a scan of artists in Asia, Singapore artists are very often involved in fairly intellectual issues, discursive issues for example what is the history or histories that we should be remembering. This is not a common topic or something that is focused on by artists around the region in Asia. So when you look at artists and how they are making work or thinking about making work, Singapore artists are quite different. It’s because of these artists, that we are curating this way.


We are responding to the kinds of work that is being made in Singapore. We are choosing these examples mainly because they are available and seem to make sense to Singapore now. Becoming Graphic is about mortality, The Unforgetting Space is about our history(s), about inclusive histories, about the individual’s stake in history. It is also about locating yourself in the subject matter. It is about locating who we are now in the current cross roads of this society. The artists are reclaiming their space as women, as ethnicity and a larger discussion beyond just a narrative and you can see – this idea of locating selves and understanding the realities of these selves in our society – and you can see this in Inheritance as well as The Yellow Bird (Rajagopal).

So when SIFA curates, we tend to curate not some kind of fantasy, but very real issues, real stories with great impact to persons, their selves and the society. And this for me, seems to be what Singaporean art is.


“Becoming Graphic” by Sonny Liew employs the concept of the 'voicer', who animates and breathes life into the characters of Liew's imagination as his pen draws a nuanced and layered story of the complex issues we face with ageing and mortality.
Image courtesy of Sonny Liew & Singapore International festival of Arts



O.P.E.N. has been programmed to now meld with SIFA to extend the festival across four months. What was the reason behind this decision? What sort of difference do you think this will make to the experience of festival attendees?

It’s a practical decision. For the last 3 years we were never able to do this because we are a small team and we are very short handed. After we wrap up The O.P.E.N. we often needed that one month in between to breathe and then jump into SIFA. But this year, being the last year, the team and I decided to just take the plunge and do what we had always wanted to do but were not able to do. Let’s make the last sprint across the finishing line.


And I think making this decision tie in the programmes between The O.P.E.N. and SIFA more intricately. Like the link between O.P.E.N. Kitchens opens up to Open Homes in SIFA. Or when we talked about participation earlier, we see how the idea of participation threads through from Art As Res Publicae, to Lizard On The Wall, to opening up of kitchens and individuals becoming actors in their own living rooms, in their own homes, and then with Henrico’s Farm where audiences are observing a master at work. And in Dries Verhoeven’s Guilty Landscape III where the audience is interacting with an actor from so far away, in Netherlands actually, and that interaction forms the bedrock of the piece.


You then begin to see a flow, from The O.P.E.N. into SIFA. In compacting everything into a tight 4 months, the theme as well as the approaches become stronger and threaded through. You have a better sense of the entire Festival conceptually – and metaphorically, you can walk right across from The O.P.E.N. into SIFA.

“O.P.E.N. Kitchens” is a participatory encounter where the audience is invited to cook with the host. A delightful spectrum of home cooks, with stories as delectable as their dishes, will host.
Image courtesy of Jeannie Ho & Singapore International festival of Arts


‘O.P.E.N. Kitchens’ is an interesting event where the audience is invited to cook with the host. We all know Singaporeans are self-declared foodies, but also considering the fact that we can be notoriously conservative in terms of interacting with strangers, do you think that at times there are challenges to producing such events? When deciding the programme for the festival, is there consideration to whether an event is well-received, or is there a belief that producing a high quality and challenging experience is important?

I think too much is said that SIFA is a challenging festival. Let’s say going into Open Homes in 2015 (Open Homes was first launched in SIFA 2015 and we commissioned it for this 2017 season with 30 homes.) – it was quite unexpected and at the same time very liberating to see individuals who wanted to see performances in somebody else’s house. And there were these ‘actors’ who willingly participate and open up their homes and their lives to be shared with strangers.


I feel that it is more of what Augusto Boal, who was a Brazilian theatre maker, said. We have ‘cops in our heads’. These policemen or women in our heads telling us that “we shouldn’t do this” or “shouldn’t do that”, or “That’s embarrassing”. I think we all have cops in our heads. In that sense I actually think that from what I saw in 2015 and what I believe O.P.E.N. Kitchens will be – you know we have all been in these situations before where we arrive at our hosts’ home and they are still cooking. We help out, we help cook, or lay the table, in between conversations, and it’s fun. This is part of the experience of SIFA.

How we have curated SIFA is about a focus on human interaction, and the social nature that we are naturally.


We are just taking a very normal situation like an open house during Chinese New Year and zooming in on the everyday normal activities and expand or magnify the experience. It is very natural and very organic and I feel the audiences will slip into it very naturally. But what is also important for SIFA is to curate with a spectrum in mind. We have these organic natural ways, then there are these conventional in-the-theatre productions, then there are these experimentations pushing and testing conventions.


“O.P.E.N. Kitchens” is a participatory encounter where the audience is invited to cook with the host. A delightful spectrum of home cooks, with stories as delectable as their dishes, will host.
Image courtesy of Jeannie Ho & Singapore International festival of Arts


You mentioned that one of the goals of SIFA 2017 is to try to oppose the global disenchantment and negativity that has blanketed us in the last few years. How do you think the arts in Singapore, more broadly, can contribute to activating the nation into being more engaged and connected to each other?

I think from the very beginning even when I was starting to make theatre professionally in the 1980s, I talked about the theatre as a space where you can become more human. Where you can really engage with your emotions, which you don’t dare to face in real life. These were my entry points as a theatre director.


I think what is happening more and more is that Singapore is becoming very disconnected. Just recently we have a couple abusing an elderly man over a seat in a hawker centre. The couple just want their table. To me this is disconnected from life. You don’t see a real person in front of you but just another object that doesn’t mean a thing in your life.


But the theatre is a social space. You may be seated in the dark, watching a performance. But you don’t feel comfortable leaving in the middle of a performance when the performers are still performing. You feel awkward doing that. But not in the cinema because you know the actors are not real. It is an image.


In the theatre the actors are real, and you acknowledge that realness and their connection to you and hence the sense of embarrassment of awkwardness. So there is a sense that we are disconnected with life right now.


The way we live is often mediated by machines, by technology that we forget what it means to be human. What is this human interaction? We don’t realise when we are being discriminatory, we are being unfair or being unjust. Because we are no longer engaged and connected with each other. We are following the pragmatic pathways – a lot of people are just making money to survive and of course this is necessary because we live in a very expensive city. And as a result we become very callous, and our relationship suffers, we don’t have the time to take it slow and nurture something unless we see an economic value behind it. Everything is about the nuts and bolts. We lose the human connection. We focus only on ourselves, our feelings, our entitlement, our needs. And we become disenchanted when we think our needs are not met and that is part of negativity.


That’s why with SIFA in the last 4 years, we grapple with finding ways to re-engage, re-connect. Hence Open Homes and O.P.E.N. Inspiration, O.P.E.N. Kitchens, The O.P.E.N. with its different engagement projects – connecting again through the arts.


Yes, we push the boundaries of the arts, but always connected to what it means to be human. Life affects the art and art, life. And this sense of SIFA I like very much.

For instance, I wouldn’t go to Budapest to invite a work about Frankenstein but I would invite a work that is talking about what is happening to an old hospital when capitalistic needs take over decisions, where the sick and the ill are thrown out. So I do curate based on issues and issues that are connected to being human. That is what SIFA tries to be and is very involved in – reflecting on what it means to be a human being.


“O.P.E.N. Inspiration: Make Food Not War” by Kamal Mouzawak
Image courtesy of Jeannie Ho & Singapore International festival of Arts


After four editions, this will be your final year as the Founding Festival Director, what is your hope for the future iterations of SIFA? What are your plans for the future, are there any upcoming projects you would like to share?

I actually don’t have any big plans for the future. Mainly because I feel we need the energy to complete the Festival. The five years is a kind of a cycle. That the planning to restart the Festival, beginning with the change in its name, direction and approach, and to what it is now, I see that whole process as a cycle.


All of us in the original team, we were all committed to doing something meaningful. This is not another project for us. It is not just a project that we do now and then think of next year as another project to develop. We were committed to a journey and I don't think we could complete the journey if you are thinking about what to do after the journey. You have to be in the moment. You need to be enchanted by the work at hand. We need to focus on the Festival even on the very last day. And on the last day, meaning 9 Sep, I don’t know if we would be ready to start planning about what will happen next week.


We would still be focusing our energies on the Festival, aiming to complete it well and to fulfil the promise of developing this Festival together as a team when we started this project. I must say that I think personally I will be betraying the project if I am already thinking about what I am going to be doing in 2018, let alone in October. You know, creating a Festival really needs a lot of energy, a lot of energy to complete it well.

About the iterations of future SIFA? The central thing for me is to see art not just as a product. But to see art as a process of living as human beings, together. I think we are becoming so programmed to work towards commercial ends. Numbers determine our lives, not just monetary numbers, but how much, how many. I hope that in the future art is not just about consumption, but art is about living, the process of becoming a better human being.



Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 28th June till 9th September 2017. Click here for the full O.P.E.N. programme and SIFA programme, including ticket sales.

Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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