Man at His Best

Wisdom: Ong Keng Sen

Viewing the future of Singapore art through a sophisticated lens.

BY Wayne Cheong | May 17, 2017 | Arts

Photograph by Ronald Leong

It’s very important to have jobs that don’t last forever in Singapore. Positions like festival director represent different interests. It’s a public functionary. Because of that, nobody should stay forever. So, five years, and then something new can happen. A breath of fresh air.

I went to see [With/Out], and there was this moment when [Paddy Chew played by Janice Koh] asked, “Should I come out? Should I be the representative face of AIDS in Singapore?” That moved me. [For me,] I would like to be freer than to think that I must represent the arts, and fight for freedom and creativity, yet, at the same time, there are so few people who can step up.

But it’s very important, I think, to remain anonymous, and be responsible for yourself, and not a group of people. You feel like anything you say affects other people’s lives. It can be a huge burden.

I hope that when I leave the festival, I’ll be a happier person. [laughs] Because when you are in this kind of position in Singapore, you are too close to the politics, and you’re very close to people who are constantly asking you to do something. As we say, there’s no free lunch in Singapore.

It’s difficult to remain optimistic in Singapore. It’s very top-down, it’s very expensive, so how do you remain enchanted enough with life to want to stay here, to continue fighting for what you believe in?

To quote Alfian Sa’at, if you love Singapore too much, it will destroy you. You know, it will be painful. 

When I became festival director, I wanted to [make] the festival internationally recognised. For me, it was about turning it into a quality brand, right?

Singapore is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and we cannot look into the future through an ’80s lens of what is considered art.

Why do anything if it’s going to turn out average, right? I don’t want to be involved in a mediocre venture. Many people wouldn’t want to be involved in a mediocre venture; they only want the best. And Singaporeans deserve the best so they can say, “I don’t have to go to London to see this. I can see it here, because it has relevance to the rest of the country.”

If I become irrelevant, then I should leave. I’ve always chosen to be in a more pioneering space, and that’s linked very much to the fact that I can still contribute.

When there’s less transparency, you are less likely to move forward. As long as there’s no transparency, we cannot grow.

Initially, I was more involved with my emotions, but when I decided to make Theatreworks my base, I had to ask myself, “What is the mission of this company? What is my mission?” Naturally, the purpose presents itself, because you’re no longer a free individual, but living inside a network of relationships.

Very often, in the arts especially, there isn’t a lot of instant gratification: you don’t get a high salary, you don’t work normal hours. So, you ask, “Is this worth doing?”

Once real estate prices started to rise in New York, everybody moved out. And you began to realise there’s a direct relationship with economics that makes it more and more unrealistic to create art in very expensive cities.

We live in a very implicated world. We can’t escape the fact that many of the things that we live with are to someone’s cost somewhere else in the world.

Singaporeans have [problems with intimacy]. I think we are afraid of becoming vulnerable, of allowing ourselves to get close to things and being threatened by the feeling of loss.

The arts need to be paid for by the audience themselves, because very often, when there’s government funding, there will be limitations. Pay for our art and we can support the ability to say the things that we can’t say due to government funding, or else we are just going to be castrated.

There’s a piece called Guilty Landscapes III [by Dries Verhoeven] at SIFA. It’s a new media work that’s a one-to-one performance—you watch it via the Internet, you interact with the performer in the Netherlands. That interaction has you look at how you feel today as a contemporary individual who wears clothes from sweatshops. What do we feel about the fact that we are producing a lot of waste? Where is the waste being dumped? How do you feel about your privileged lifestyle, when many parts of the world are at war? These are all part of modern life so how do you deal with that guilt?

In the festival, we try to put on more intimate community projects rather than, you know, a mass dance, or a karaoke for several thousand people. We are doing a project called Open Home, where individuals open their [flats] to the audience; the homeowners are performers in their own narratives. And in OPEN Kitchens, we have a project where 21 home cooks prepare one of their favourite dishes with the audience. These are for very small groups. It’s kind of personal, an individual moment.

We face [restrictions] every day as artists. Do we just say no and leave? Or do we find a different way to say the same thing? Often, it’s more like, “Let’s begin again in a different place.

The Singapore International Fesival of Arts will run from June 28 to September 9, 2017.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.