Another Interview with Ong Keng Sen

August 11, 2015

I interviewed our dear Festival Director Ong Keng Sen at the very start of this blog, but Noorlinah mentioned that I should interview him again before SIFA really started getting into the swing of things. 

Turned out that what he really wanted to talk to me about were the negative press reviews about Nanyang: The Musical - he felt that a lot of them reflected a basic misunderstanding of what a festival commission should be.

Nanyang: The Musical

OKS:  Everyone expects a commission to be perfect. But the question is, what is a commission in the Singapore context? 

Commissions are about risk-taking. So I’m worried about how they feel that commissions are surefire successes – it’s not so much for you, but Noorlinah and Eileen are reading the reviews that come in for Nanyang, and there’s a wrong mindset for what a commission is. 

YS: But aren’t other countries’ reporters just as critical towards commissioned work?

OKS: Yes, but Singapore has a developing scene in the arts. You can’t compare Singapore with New York or London or Paris, because in those cases there are thousands of artists in the market. The cultural capital or the artistic capital is thousands of artists producing, and if there are only 12 commissions you choose one out of 100 people at least. 

My main motivation is not to get a finished product. My main motivation is to open new spaces, new potentials. Despite the fact that we’ve announced that more time has been given, it doesn’t mean that the work is a finished product. 

Nanyang: The Musical

These are emerging artists. If you look at the leads, how many of these have been seen [in major roles], other than [Seong] Huixuan? Aisyah we don’t know, Andrea we don’t know, Dennis we don’t know, Trev has only been in the chorus… Only Huixuan out of six leads was established leads. And even Izmir Ickbal is a new stage designer coming back from overseas, Elizabeth Mak is a new lighting designer. 

And I think there is a whole sense of bringing “unusuals” together. We have a very established Chinese pop scene, but it has not been seen very much in the arts scene. And I think English language musicals have a lot to learn from them about how to make radio-friendly hits. 

[Aside: I don't think Izmir Ickbal counts as a new talent - he's been doing work for Teater Ekamatra for ages. We also debated the politics of the depiction of Bali: he thinks it was an honest portrayal of the Nanyang Artists' neo-colonialism, and we're imposing our own values on the play if we demand a counter-narrative. 

We also spent time talking about the four opening acts for the festival: Kumar's Living Together, Nanyang, Returning and Dementia, and how they all brought together different audiences in Singapore, addressing different facets of our arts scene.]

Goh Lay Kuan

OKS: My idea of commissions is to reveal the potentials in Singapore the scene and juxtapose unusual perspectives: for example, asking Madam Goh to come back and show her dance again. I know some people watching Madam Goh [Lay Kuan]’s work are thinking it’s just modern dance, but what’s happening with that commission is such a large scale, showing that Singapore is 20 years behind Cloud Gate of Taiwan because we have not invested in a large scale ensemble of contemporary dance. We’re making up for lost time with returning because we’re 20 years late.

YS: So we have to get into this mindset where we expect SIFA to deliver the best of Singaporean work?

OKS: That’s the whole thing about the nanny state. It’s developed beyond the situation where festivals are leading companies by the hand. I think companies throughout the year are creating high quality work. 

Festivals should then put progressive unexpected freshness on stage. The commission is to stir up shit, to aerate the soil. I remember from joining Gardening Society in ACSS 30 years ago: it’s to stir up the soil to bring about renewed oxygen in the soil.

But for me the basic thing is, and this is quite radical to say: I don’t think that any Singapore company can match up to the Berliner Ensemble directed by Robert Wilson. That’s an impossible gauge for any company, because we don’t have a history of that professionalism in performing arts. You look at Germany, they had a history of Goethe before even Bertolt Brecht came on the scene. My bar is set more at that we are making exciting work for what Singapore is; we’re pushing the boundaries for what Singapore is. 

And this is where I remember my conversation with Janice Koh when she was MP for the arts. She was saying their [theatre groups/] regular seasons are maybe high quality finished products but there is no risk-taking. So my approach towards commissioning is we take on the risks, we take on the freshness we invite retired artists to come back, we bring art that people say is not possible in the heartlands to the heartlands, and we absorb the risk by making it free. 

Kumar's Living Together

And the thing about a commission is we take on the risks rather than the companies. You look at the Dim Sum Dollies. They will never do anything that’s not commercial, because they can’t afford to. And W!ld Rice – they had to do Hotel with us, because they didn’t dare to imagine doing a six-hour work [otherwise]. Or say Bukit Brown [i.e. DramaBox’s It Won’t Be Too Long: The Cemetery]. This kind of risk-taking which then reveals the potential in our Singapore scene rather than a surefire success.

I don’t want to sound defensive though. I feel there’s whole idea of [Kuo] Pao Kun saying that a worthy failure is more valuable than a mediocre success… 
But I don’t think anything should ever be judged as a failure. I think the sense of the search is more important for me than to constantly display a perfect formula. I think I’m trying to commission to create a dynamic scene, a dynamic industry, not just one full of successful formulas, lah.

  • 2015