Cross Talk with Wahyuni Hadi and Susie Lingham

Wahyuni Hadi and Dr Susie Lingham talk women, power and culture

In the fifth instalment of Cross Talk, a fortnightly conversation with two major figures in the arts, Wahyuni Hadi and Susie Lingham talk about the challenges they face as arts leaders

Their meeting with The Straits Times was destined by their appointments in 2013.

That year, Ms Wahyuni Hadi was appointed executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival, which had gone on hiatus since 2011, and Dr Susie Lingham was named director of the Singapore Art Museum.

Both women leaders in the arts and culture circle, however, had neither time nor opportunity to sit and chat with each other until ST intervened.

Dr Lingham, 50, who is single, has her hands so full that she professes to not "know what is day and night any more". The museum recently opened the exhibition Time Of Others, a survey of contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region, and it will launch the Yellow Ribbon Community Art Exhibition on Dec 10. She is also busy preparing for next year's Singapore Biennale.

Ms Hadi, 39, shuttles between Bangkok, where her family lives - she is married to Thai film-maker Aditya Assarat, with a two-year-old daughter - and Singapore, where she oversees the film festival that is on until Sunday. She is also director at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film and sits on the board of The Substation and youth development organisation *Scape in Orchard Link.

Stealing a moment from their hectic schedules in mid-September, they sat at an alfresco eatery at Chijmes to take stock, under the stars, of the challenges they face as arts leaders, the roles their organisations play in Singapore and the region, and their optimism for the future of the film and art scene. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Singapore is a very small place and we will have to take care of our own first, but we can't simply stay there, we have to make sure that Singapore artists are also working with other people and challenging themselves.''


ST: 2013 was an important year for both of you.

Hadi: Yes, 2013 was a busy year. I had my first child, that was a major milestone. And then, Ilo Ilo (which she co-produced and won the Camera d'Or award for best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival). And then the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) position came along. I was expecting it to be an easy year after having my child, but all these opportunities came about that just made it more exciting.

Lingham: It was hectic for me too. I couldn't see beyond the end of my nose because everything was right up and it still remains so.

Hadi: This was after you took up the museum job?

Lingham: Even before that, I hadn't had a break, and when they made the announcement in July, I was still at my old job, so it was a whole month of serious overlap. When I came on in Aug 1, it was a real plunge in. There was the Singapore Biennale that was opening in October and the corporatisation of the museum that happened in November. For the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to come out of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and all the embedded structures after 18 years, the pathways weren't obvious, so I had to grope my way around. It was tough.

Hadi: I remember hearing about your appointment and I thought it was inspiring because there are so few women who lead arts organisations in Singapore. It was a good sign too that an organisation like SAM would take in someone who is an artist first and has an understanding of the arts. It gave me a sense of hope.

Lingham: That's nice to know. Yeah, I was surprised too. (Laughs) No, really, I was like "What?!" But I didn't have a lot of space for doubt; I was eyeball-deep in work and I couldn't indulge in it.

  • Career milestones


    1965: Born in Singapore

    1990: Graduated with a diploma in fine art from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

    1991 to 1995: Co-founded 5th Passage, a non-profit, self-funded arts company that was among the first of its kind here, providing a platform for everything from art exhibitions and performance art to public readings and forums

    1999 to 2003: Lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts

    2000: Received a master's (honours) in writing from the University of Western Sydney

    2008: Received a doctorate in philosophy in literature, religion and philosophy from University of Sussex in Britain

    2008 to 2009: Senior lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

    2009 to 2013: Assistant professor of visual and performing arts at the National Institute of Education

    2012: Held solo art exhibition, Turn, at The Substation

    2013 to present: Director of Singapore Art Museum


    1976: Born in Singapore

    1997: Graduated with a diploma in arts management from Lasalle College of the Arts

    1999 to 2003: Joined The Substation as programme manager and established its year-round film programme as a critical offering for Singapore's film scene

    2003 to 2013: Founded and ran the popular Fly By Night Video Challenge with film-maker Tan Pin Pin

    2005 to present: Joined the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film as centre manager and offered Singapore film-makers professional representation by starting the first Singapore short-film distribution arm, Objectifs Film; now one of three directors at Objectifs

    2007: Received a master's in arts and cultural management from Lasalle College of the Arts

    2007 to 2009: Festival manager and, later, festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival

    2013: Co-produced the film Ilo Ilo by Singapore film-maker Anthony Chen, which won Camera d'Or at Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards

    2014 to present: Executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival

    2015: Member of the prestigious Berlin Film Festival's short-film jury

ST: What about you, Yuni? When you found yourself as a woman heading the festival, a few months after Susie's appointment, did it surprise you?

Hadi: I had worked at the festival before and there had been talk about the festival coming back for a while, but it happened quickly. For me, if I feel fear, I know that's the right thing for me to do, so I will jump in and swim. Of course, you don't 100 per cent know whether you can do it because you haven't done it before, but the only way to know is to take it on.

Lingham: "You don't 100 per cent know" is exactly how I felt. But what you said about leading as a woman, I don't see myself as leading in that sense at all. So if people see me as a role model, I'd be surprised - I don't see myself as a role model. (Both laugh)

ST: Did you face any challenges early on?

Hadi: The main challenges were rebuilding trust with the community and overseas film-makers and understanding where we were in the landscape since the absence of the festival. Because of the different political situations in the countries surrounding us, film festivals in South-east Asia have come and gone, so we had to identify what kind of space we could occupy, what that meant to us and not chase only the obvious, which is big films or big directors.

We've had to look at basic things, such as the quality of the films and stories that we're interested to showcase, and then build new initiatives such as the Southeast Asian Film Lab, which supports people making their first features, and the youth jury and critics programme for tertiary students to watch films from South-east Asia, write about them and vote for the Youth Jury Prize.

Lingham: I also thought about what SAM is beyond Singapore because for the last 18 years, it has had to be a place that South-east Asian artists look to to represent them. And with the Biennale, we did weave tighter relationships with artists from far-flung places other than the capital cities. So as I crafted a new vision, with the help of the museum's board, the tagline became "contemporary art" first, not "South-east Asian art"; and contemporary art in South-east Asia - not "of", but "in" - so Singapore can stand for what contemporary art is around the world too.

ST: It is interesting that both of you had to work out what your organisations mean, not just for Singapore, but also South-east Asia.

Hadi: It's difficult for good Southeast Asian films to travel to other countries because of language barriers, and a big star in Thailand may not be a big star in Indonesia because they haven't discovered each other yet. The idea is that if we can reach out further, share that information and give people opportunities to watch the films, they will see that the language barriers disappear because we have a lot in common. And when the film-makers come together, they realise that.

Lingham: Do the South-east Asian film-makers see Singapore as an important, neutral ground on which they can meet?

Hadi: I think so. When we have the film festival, film-makers do come on their own, and they were happy last year that we returned and they could come together as friends. But the first step is always your own country, you can only plant the seed and take the next step and see where it goes.

In the absence of the festival, a lot of things changed. Now, Singapore film-makers may think of premiering their films overseas, instead of at the Singapore International Film Festival. We can't make people premiere their films at the festival just because it is the national film festival, it should be because they feel it is the best choice, and we have to raise our standards to convince them it is the best choice. At the end of the day, the programming speaks for itself.

Lingham: Singapore is a very small place and we will have to take care of our own first, but we can't simply stay there, we have to make sure that Singapore artists are also working with other people and challenging themselves. With the Singapore Biennale 2013, people looked at SAM as that - the place where these things can happen and open up relational ties. This was a lot harder maybe 10 years ago, because there was a lot of criticism and questioning of Singapore's intentions.

ST: As organisations that function on the national level but remain autonomous, how do you navigate that space?

Lingham: This is new for Singapore, allowing a national museum to unmoor. It's going to be an experiment of sorts because all the museums used to be part of NHB and they had processes that were shared. For the last 18 years, when SAM was a statutory board, whatever it put up did not have to go through the Media Development Authority and now it does; this independence is a double-edged sword.

Hadi: Most film festivals receive a large amount of government funding, so it's not unusual. For us, it's trying to balance whatever restrictions that are put on us with creating a space where we can still have a voice and unique identity. If Singapore wants a top-level film festival, we must acknowledge that these festivals around the world present the most cutting-edge directors and films, and that includes things that may be objectionable in Singapore. We hope to be that space, where we can present any of these films, because it is in the context of the festival and presented as an art form. If our partners can understand what our role is and we can put that across in a way that they understand as well, then more great things will come.

ST: Looking ahead then, is there anything about Singapore's art or film scene that excites you?

Lingham: For me, the excitement is there if we take the tide as it is turning and build expertise so we become the place people make their pilgrimage to, that they come here instead of us always having to refer and defer like we haven't arrived. It's not about arriving per se, but being that whirlpool. When I see Singapore artists still looking to overseas residencies as the highlights of their existence and always referring to an aesthetic that is not thought through, I want them to sense that the tide is turning.

Hadi: Many films are being made and there are now a lot of first- and second-time film-makers, so the question is: how do we move on from here? No one has the answer yet, but it is bringing us together as a community and removing barriers; it's not "you make arthouse" and "I make commercial". And that's interesting because we can look at the kinds of films we're making, instead of just thinking along the lines of genres. In terms of audience, when the festival returned last year, people were not afraid to ask questions and they were interested in the process. We have moved beyond basic questions like what is your inspiration, or what is your budget.

Lingham: Or how long did it take to make this.

Hadi: Yeah. There is a level of sophistication, which is due to many factors, including easy access to information, and we can now discuss the art form, the idea, the storytelling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Taking the plunge into art and films'. Subscribe