Singapore International Festival of Art

Ong Keng Sen disappointed after 4 years as Arts Fest director

Ong Keng Sen, who helmed the festival from 2014, says he struggled to keep it independent

After four years of sold-out shows, growing audiences and funding critically acclaimed new works, Ong Keng Sen should be satisfied with his work on the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa).

But the outgoing festival director says he is disappointed.

He tells The Straits Times he put his doctorate on hold in New York and came back to Singapore in 2013 because he was excited by the idea of a truly independent arts festival run from the bottom up, with the expectation that the Government would take a back seat.

Sifa is funded by the National Arts Council and presented its first edition in 2014, when it did not need to apply for arts licensing.

That year, Arts House Limited was set up to manage the festival and allow Sifa its independence.

But ironically, from 2015, the festival team had to apply for separate licences to present each work in its programme, since Sifa no longer qualified for arts licensing exemptions granted to organisations run directly by the arts council or a statutory board.

Many people are surprised that I've become so involved in speaking about censorship. As an independent artist, I can survive censorship. But censorship destroys a city, the ability to imagine in a city. When you dam thought processes in a city, you're not going to find someone inventing something new because they've been told not to think outside the box.


"Singapore kept evolving in the opposite direction. It became starker and starker that what I was doing was against the grain," Ong says.

The 54-year-old laments how he has had to alter his vision for certain events to allay official fears. He cites this year's festival opener as just one example.

Original plans for Art As Res Publicae on June 28 were to train discussants to debate new scripts and decide whether the controversial content within should be shown at all.

"There was a lot of anxiety about the fact that these are issues which are potentially dangerous. Then there were questions about who we were inviting to the discussion. This is not 'arm's length'," says Ong.

In the end, a previously performed work, Eleanor Wong's 1995 play Wills & Secession, was presented for debate. The evening went off all right, but Ong says: "It would have been different if we could ask the question: 'What is the border for Singaporean audiences?'"

He also went to bat for Becoming Graphic, a theatrical work directed by Edith Podesta and featuring comic artist Sonny Liew.

Liew's graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, lost a National Arts Council grant in 2015 because its take on local history went against the official narrative and "potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions", the council said.

Ong insisted on programming Liew for Sifa and says he had to allay numerous concerns that Becoming Graphic would feature content from The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

It did not, but he feels his questioners missed the point of an independent festival.

"The festival is giving value to art, to bottom-up conversations. We give value to different views, different thinkers, not just people who think like me. I wanted to commission quality artists even if they are not aligned with the Government."

The council said it would respond later.

Ms Lee Chor Lin, former director of the National Museum, was the first chief executive officer of Arts House Limited. Ms Sarah Martin replaced her in December last year.

Ong cites the change in leadership as a sign that the festival is not truly independent.

There was no open call for the job and, worse, he says, nobody queried the changes, not even the public and artists meant to own the festival.

"Five years is too short a time for the public to own a festival," he says. "They may see a difference, but they can't stand up and ask the questions: 'What's the role of a national festival? Why select these people to head the festival? Why isn't there an open call for the job?' It's endemic here not to ask these questions."

Sifa replaced the old Singapore Arts Festival, which saw a dramatic drop in attendance towards the end of its 36-year run. A review recommended that the arts industry here take the lead in organising the festival.

Under Ong's leadership, Sifa evolved from a showcase of bigname overseas stars to one headlined by commissions created by Singaporean artists, with or without international collaborators.

The annual festival also achieved higher-than-ever outreach of 218,000 viewers (including Facebook viewers) for this year's edition, which ran from June 28 to last Saturday, compared with 22,000 attendees in 2014.

The 2014 edition featured postmodern theatre troupe The Wooster Group and a science opera, Facing Goya, composed by Michael Nyman and directed by Ong.

Director questions festival's future

Ong went on to direct a single show at every Sifa - the opera Trojan Women this year - but the marquee events were often presented by other local theatremakers.

This year, Nine Years Theatre presented the three-hour Art Studio, an ambitious adaptation of a giant novel of the same name, while theatre company Pangdemonium wowed audiences with a tight play about climate change, Dragonflies.

Under Ong, the festival also went into the heartland. In 2015, volunteers around the island opened their homes to strangers to share personal stories. This year, O.P.E.N. Homes returned, but more volunteers also took strangers into their kitchens to share recipes, cook and eat together.

Those familiar with Ong's abstract works through his company TheatreWorks would have been surprised at the diversity of the programmes. He says it was a "joyful" experience having to consider a wide range of audiences.

"Curating for the city, we were talking to many different people and that was an immense pleasure. I might not make work for these particular communities, but I had to commission artists who would."

He adds: "The main work of Sifa is to convince Singapore audiences that art is for everyone. In my tenure as festival director, I tried to prove that art is accessible without dumbing it down."

The festival has received glowing mentions in The Guardian newspaper and set up meaningful collaborations with artists from other countries.

This year, Filipino film-maker Lav Diaz shot a new film, Henrico's Farm, in Singapore for the festival.

Ong puts the festival's growing reputation down to its ability to programme beyond the mainstream.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre's artistic director Gaurav Kripalani takes over as festival director from next year to 2020. Ong makes it clear he supports his successor.

He is more concerned that art is seen as "elitist" and artists as "troublemakers" by the officials who hold the purse strings.

"The legacy question is - what's going to happen to this independent festival funded at arm's length? Gaurav has his taste, but what's going to happen after him? We need very sensitive and intelligent officials to pull these strands together."

So, what is next for Ong? He has several offers, including to direct Tree Of Codes, a fusion of ballet, music and visual art from Australia, based on a book of the same name by American author Jonathan Safran Foer.

But he is not eager to rush into things. He says he needs time to himself and to reconnect with his loved ones. He may also return to New York to complete his PhD.

He needs a break from Singapore, he says, and he does not think much will change in his absence.

"There's a certain track that officials have committed to. There's a strong sense that to survive, to get on in this city, you have to align because the Government is the paymaster," he says.

"I have loved Singapore so much in what I do, but there is a moment when you feel like this is the limit for now," he adds.

"I'm very happy that this is finished and I can just be myself and be outrageous."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Director leaves disenchanted '. Print Edition | Subscribe