Interview with Ong Keng Sen #5

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 30, 2015


Let's round off SIFA 2015 with one last interview with our Festival Director! (This isn't actually a new interview: it's just a lengthy tangent from Interview #4. Also see #1#2, #3.

NYS: Any last thoughts on the Festival?

OKS: I think something else I enjoyed was how all the groups responded by making their festival items epic. You can be epic in terms of spectacle and you can be epic in terms of your imagination.

Hotel, some people would say it’s not epic because it’s set in one room, but it was epic in its whole time and space, and it’s something W!ld Rice would not have done by itself because they would not have seen the dollars and cents balancing out for them. But I think now W!ld Rice has done this, they have a product they can bring back. It was as epic as Drama Box’s scope of doing both the Cemetery and Toa Payoh in completely different ways.

Everybody challenged themselves in different ways. Tang Quartet may never hade done Black Angels by themselves because within their repertory it’s a stretch, but they responded to my call to do something unusual.


But this larger issue that I think the Festival is sitting on… I don’t know if you’ve read about he migration crisis in Business Times, and I think the Festival is on the brink of all these discussions, like with Border Crossers.

And I must say there are moments when I think, “Oh god, are we supporting PAP’s agenda in doing a work like this, or are we critiquing the opposition’s negativity about migration?” So sometimes I felt a little bit uncertain about the stand in Singapore. Because on a certain level I believe in Border Crossers, I believe in having more foreign workers, because I think Singapore is too closed and I don’t think anything can change until we have more foreignness in Singapore.

And I think does this support PAP? Why is the opposition so xenophobic and inward-looking? Because the only way they can get support is to come out against foreign workers. So for myself, I have to think what this means for me as a Festival director. Being Singapore, being cosmopolitan.


I think for me it was very important to change the name to SIFA, so it plays to an international level. And I don’t mean more atas – I can say SIFA is not just here to discuss communities as framed by Singapore politics.

I think we have a larger discussion about how Singapore politics is framing migration, because we are the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. And that has been the biggest advantage of changing the name. The first year, when I did get a call from MCCY about why there is no Chinese production, I said there why is there no Malay production, and I said we have to put all candidates that are possible for the Festival and decide what to bring on a government-to-government cultural exchange. Because it’s called SIFA this gives it a kind of leverage, that we are not just concerned with Singapore politics and Singapore voting concerns.

And of course this year, it ends with Border Crossers, and the idea of what is the Post-Nation possibility, is this photograph...



There are still some things the festival is not known for. Singaporeans have a buying pattern for classical music: they go to the SSO or look at the Esplanade. So I agree that SIFA is not necessarily the first avenue these audiences go for. Because they are thinking of having a subscription to classical music, and they go to the SSO. So although we may present Matthias Goerne’s Winterreise, that’s not being picked up by classical music lovers. And for us we are never going to be a subscription oriented type festival, unlike the SSO where you can pick up six concerts to bring your child to. And we have concerts with let’s say 12 foreign works that we bring, we can’t just spend it all on classical concerts.

I think one of the things that’s coming across is that SIFA’s getting much more a of a pull for its experimental edge. People want to see something new, like something like Dirtsong is seen to be too pop in a way. Dementia and Six Characters in Search of an Author, they are not easy theatre, but they sold much better than an Aboriginal music concert. I think audiences expect something different from SIFA – at the end of Six Characters, we only had 40 tickets left to sell for the three shows. So that was quite interesting. I would think that absurdist theatre, people would say it’s difficult to sell, yet it sold.


NYS: But they're very famous texts.

OKS: I think in a  way SIFA does believe in bringing in the absurd canon. Because I don’t think that Beckett and Pirandello is hard to sell, because it is the canon of absurd theatre. But I think most curators and programmers in Singapore would not plan to do something like that. So I think the festival does stand out. We take a slightly more edgy approach.

NYS: Would you do anything different next year?

OKS: I would consider, next year, whether or not I would put in the first week a show by emerging artists.


Maybe it would be better to represent it later. Like Wang Chong with LaSalle students: by the time that came a certain kind of energy had formed, had taken root. So next time I’ll think hard before putting an emerging artist group there.

I took that risk because I didn’t want to open with established companies: I didn’t want to open with Hotel or Versus. And it was a once n a lifetime opportunity to do SG50 work: we could invite Lay Kuan back in a way, and it was an appropriate event for leaders to see: large-scale work which has not been adequately supported.


Making contemporary dance from ethnic dance is something that Singapore still struggles with and I believe some very bold moves should have been made in the ‘90s, like it was made n Taiwan with Cloud Gate: that was when Chinese dance became contemporary dance. And we missed that boat in Singapore. But in presenting returning, I feel it’s a great opportunity, because it’s right for politicians to look at this work. I think it will be harder to bring politicians to Versus, mainly because it’s an artistic language that demands a lot. I think that was a good opening fit for the politicians.

And I’ve done another kind of opening last year: Facing Goya, Michael Nyman, biogenetics… an arty opening was put on the table. So this is a continuing conversation about what is an appropriate opening, and not every year will we find the right show. It’s very much about the arts: it depends on the planets coming together in a certain way. On chance, on luck. A certain kind of randomness.

Photo by Michael Dames

I think that with classical music, I imagine if I ever did a commission again, I would insist on a new composition. It may not be a new composition from Singapore, but from the world. It was exciting to see Phyllis Chen’s work coming together, where it was performed for the first time. I think I will insist on at least one new classical composition.

Many people say the think this is the best festival they’ve seen. But I think we can’t do another festival like this, because we’ll kill ourselves. 69 shows, one Open Homes which became 25 homes, one Dance Marathon which became 14 productions…

So I think that’s the reality pill that we will have to take for 2016. We can’t go on in this way. We are an indie structure which is not completely funded to do this kind of large scale. We don’t have the infrastructure of the National Museum to do the Night Festival, where they have full salaried staff. Those are the things that I’m thinking about a lot.

Where is the future? I do believe that SIFA is still a niche festival, a specialized festival, a boutique festival, because inflation is so high the cost of living has gone so much, that $6 million in 2012 is no longer $6 million in 2015.


I think we’ve proven naysayers wrong, who say you can’t do this in Singapore. But it takes a lot out of you; you need a more independent structure. One of the contradictory things about SIFA is that it’s not institutional yet. It doesn’t have a building.

It’s still quite indie. In terms of that we can say, “OK, we don’t have a formula, we can explore different things.”


  • 2015