Ong Keng Sen, Festival Director of SIFA, in a quiet moment with
The O.P.E.N.

Kheng Hua Tan - Saturday, April 05, 2014

We grabbed SIFA Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen, straight off a plane, into the joyful madness that was The O.P.E.N. Call on February 15 at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, and then to this quiet moment where he shared some of his more personal thoughts about The O.P.E.N.

1. What was the genesis of The O.P.E.N.?

OKS: Very often, when we go into the theatre, we go in without any context as to what we are going to see. And so I sometimes feel as if the experience is very reduced. It’s like chess. If you don’t know the rules of chess, you can’t enjoy the game. So I think if you don’t know the context of the performance you are going to see, you are only enjoying the theatre experience up to maybe 50%. 

The O.P.E.N. is formulated to try to make up the other 50% by helping to create a context for you to experience and enjoy the festival at a deeper level.

2. How is The O.P.E.N.  doing this?

OKS: This year, The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014 is programmed according to the theme of Legacy and The Expanded Classics. In The O.P.E.N., we are connecting the audience to the legacies of the 20th Century through a series of talks, exhibitions, film screenings, performances, demonstrations and discussions in an informal and casual way. 

I feel very strongly that how we live today is very much affected by how we lived in the 20th Century. The use of energy which has resulted in so many nuclear reactors. The climate change that has occurred. The racism that was institutionalised by apartheid. And this of course, came from World War II and what the Nazis were doing to the Jews and how the whole discrimination against minorities was very strongly institutionalised.

Connecting the audiences with these legacies of the 20th Century was the reason why The O.P.E.N. was created. And I believe you can only have open spaces in our lives if we open our minds and our hearts. And that’s how the name The O.P.E.N. came about. It is really, the process that we hope the audience will go through when they come join us. 

3. How did you feel today, when you encountered all who came for 
The O.P.E.N. Call?

OKS: I am amazed. Singapore has changed. I think Singaporeans are really searching to be more involved. They want to participate. They want to place themselves in the centre of the world. They want to understand the world by being there, by being in the centre. And in that way, they can localise what the world means to them. 

Today, in The O.P.E.N.’s first engagement exercise with the public, we were asking the public to come up and take their place in our space. And we hoped once they take the space, the world becomes clearer because it is contextualised to their position. We want them to know they can look north, south, east and west, because of where they are standing. I believe The O.P.E.N. can only begin when the audience says they want to stand here, in the middle of the 20th Century, and to see how it has affected them. And the fact that today, more than 270 people came, it really shows me that there has been a change in Singapore. That there are Singaporeans who really want to be engaged. 

4. What do you hope for when The O.P.E.N. is in session?

OKS: I would like to see the hunger of the Singaporeans who come to The O.P.E.N. satiated. There is a lot of hunger out there, a desire to know more and sometimes, I feel in Singapore, you can’t experience the answers for yourself. You are always learning from a textbook, or told the answers by someone else. What The O.P.E.N. does is to put you in the centre of it, so you are asked to make certain decisions about the issues and topics being discussed. What do you think about biomedical ethics? What do you feel about taxpayers’ contribution to Singapore’s biotechnology? What does this mean to me? Do I want to make a decision about gene profiteering, cloning? I recently watched a documentary about breast cancer, how a woman wanted to test whether she could get breast cancer from her mother and how her genes were being patented by pharmaceutical companies who are making money off her.  It was absolutely shocking.  These are all big issues. What is my position about the legacies of fear and violence in the 20th Century? Will I defend someone who has been victimised? When we attend The O.P.E.N., we will feel these questions coming at us strongly.  And for the people I saw today who are hungry to make a stand, to know more, to learn, I hope they will be satiated. 

Copyright 2014. Arts House Limited.
Unless otherwise stated, other images by Jeannie Ho