An interview with Ong Keng Sen

Ng Yi-Sheng

March 30, 2015

Hi everyone! Welcome to the official blog of the  Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA)!

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Festival Director Ong Keng Sen. He’s just back from Paris, where he was directing his new production, The Incredible Adventures of the Border Crossers (which will be presented at SIFA). This week, he’s off to Germany for a seminar on performing arts curatorship.

But he spared us a few minutes in his office in between:

YS: Let’s talk about the theme of SIFA this year, “Post-Empires”. How did you get the idea for this?

OKS: I was interested in the idea of legacy. Most people think of legacy as something long-distance, but I was thinking of our 20th century legacy. It’s like the situation in Chile – I spent some time in Chile, and I asked the young people there if they felt like they’re in a post-empire situation, and they said, “No, because [dictator Augusto] Pinochet may be dead, but his cronies are still in power.”

I think that’s part of the irony. In a post-empire situation we are aware of the ned for change. But there is still the remains of the empire there. And you can see that now in Singapore, what the situation is after LKY…

YS: Whoa, that’s a huge topic in and of itself. Let’s focus on the idea of empire first.

OKS: I think in recent years Empire has been defined by Michael Hart and Antonio Negri. I think that’s a kind of Capitalist Empire and Empire as Neo-liberalism, which is how I started thinking about this issue. We are living in an apparently liberal period but this liberty comes with a price, and it [the liberty] is often superficial.

But of course as I went further into the theme I realised there are many different empires that we’re living with and I didn’t want to be associated only with the “capital E”-Empire which is the recent definition.

YS: What have people’s reactions to it been like?

OKS: When I first mentioned the name, someone said, “It’s so quaint! I haven’t heard the word ‘empire’ in a long time.” And yet other people said it’s very interesting because this word empire brings in different emotions, attitudes, and philosophies.

In a way, the word “empire” was a difficult word. The word post is easy – you can be post-gender, post-Communism, post-nation, all these things. But I think it was interesting to be inside this dilemma of empire, being a different way of thinking. And which empire are we talking about? And the post-empire situation is often the situation in which we’re fighting the empire that’s being perpetuated still.

And in the midst of all that, there are people who are saying, “You’re being too intellectual with the festival.” You know all about that type of argument in this country.

YS: Who says that?

OKS: I think a lot of people out there who have no belief in art. In this job as Festival Director, I realise that a lot of government and civil servants don’t believe in the arts, and they are working in this field. And I am shocked, because I think you shouldn’t be sitting on the board of an arts institution if you don’t love the arts.

I get statements from board members who say, “That’s good if you’re not concentrating on art but social issues.” And I get offended. Because they should not be where they are. This is the problem in Singapore. You have a lot of people who sit on the boards of art institutions who say something like that, and it’s outrageous. Because the arts as in other things in Singapore – churches, opposition parties – need to have good governance. But in the end you are there that you love the arts.

Those people who believe love should be easy, art should be entertaining, art should be relaxing. And we all know what kind of art you get when that happens. That art takes you to a very recognizable destination, which is to the dumps.

YS: Let’s get back to the LKY question. How does that impact the festival?

I think as soon as I landed in France at Charles de Gaulle Airport, someone asked me, “Do you have a fallback plan in case something happens?” Because he had read that LKY was gravely ill. And many people asked out of interest because they wanted to know how Singapore will move on.

So I think this is the year that “Post-Empires” is probably the most relevant to Singapore. I didn’t plan it that way but it’s become completely relevant. It is really a moment to take stock in Singapore. How do we develop our trajectories after our destinies have been so pre-written?

We have the production of Six Characters In Search Of An Author by Theatre de la Ville, a company from Paris. And I think it’s completely relevant because this idea of our histories and trajectories and our destinies have been written for us which are designed by an author, by a master planner.

And the moment of post-empires begins when characters walk out of a book and say, “We don’t want to end up with the destinies that are being planned for us.” This is a metaphorical moment of post-empires. So these characters who are searching for a new author are in a sense the individuals at the crossroads of post-empires, where they leave an empire and embark on their own journeys.

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  • 2015