[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]ive years ago, when theatre director Ong Keng Sen took over the helm of the national arts festival, he was told that Singapore is not a place for “arty” programming, and that anything “non-mainstream” would fail to find an audience here.

These kinds of challenges are, of course, not new to Ong. As the longtime artistic director of arts company TheatreWorks, he has always thrived on bringing the smartest, chicest, strangest art to his audience. Not surprisingly, TheatreWorks’ shows typically divide people, putting them into camps of lovers and loathers.

Ong Keng Sen, outgoing SIFA director
“I’m involved in the process of creation and I give very clear notes to the artists about the strengths and potential pitfalls of the works. Then I leave it – I never pursue them to make the changes. I must believe in what they’re making.”

“But the job of the national arts festival director is different. You have to give yourself over to the public. You have to respond to the city. You are a public functionary,” says Ong.


His appointment as festival director marked the first time an artist was given the mantle to run the national arts festival, which was hitherto organised by government body National Arts Council. An independent arts company Arts Festival Ltd was set up to manage the festival. It was renamed Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) with Lee Chor Lin, ex-director of National Museum of Singapore, as CEO.

Arguably, there was no better person for the festival director’s job. Ong has worked with international artists since 1992. He has a direct line to sought-after stars such as Robert Wilson, Jerome Bel, Amir Reza Koohestani and the Wooster Group – all of whom presented works in SIFA’s first year, 2014. “I’ve known all of them for a long time. They’re friends,” he notes.

The debut festival astounded with shows such as Wilson’s grim interpretation of Peter Pan, Nikhil Chopra’s 50-hour visual art performance, and Korean director Seo Jae-Hyung’s heart-rending staging of Oedipus Rex.

But, true to form, Ong also brought radical works that split opinions, such as Wooster Group’s conceptual but alienating Cry, Trojans!, Miet Warlop/Campo’s bizarre surrealist work Mystery Magnet, and Ong’s own unconventional opera Facing Goya.

Trojan Women (C) [National Theater Of Korea]
One of the highlights of SIFA 2017 is Trojan Women, directed by Ong Keng Sen in collaboration with the National Theater of Korea. It retells the famous Greek tragedy as a changgeuk (traditional Korean opera) performed against a minimal production design. PHOTO National Theater of Korea
Subsequent SIFA editions also divided audiences with certain shows – the re-invented circus Cabanons in 2015, the paedophile drama Five Easy Pieces in 2016, the 10-minute play in a bed Everything By My Side in 2016, and, as always, Ong’s own works, The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers in 2015 and Sandaime Richard in 2016. Despite this, ticket sales stayed above 80 per cent, according to Ong.

(RELATED: Ong Keng Sen: How arts in Singapore can be funded without compromising independence.)

“I want to show art – not a cultural programme or a carnival,” he says.

But, if there is one thing that Ong does unquestionably well, it is championing artists and giving them space to create their best works. Practically all the commissioned plays by local theatre companies were among the best they’ve ever produced.

Wi!d Rice mounted the five-hour play Hotel spanning 100 years of Singapore history. Drama Box devised a triple bill in three locations, including Bukit Brown Cemetery. Checkpoint Theatre staged the most rousing play of 2016, The Last Bull, about the life of a flamenco dancer. And Nine Years Theatre has just delivered its most ambitious work yet, a three-hour adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s epic novel Art Studio (see review below).


Ong says: “I think the difference between having me and a bureaucrat from the National Arts Council programming the festival is that I am an artist too, so I can say with confidence to the artists why this works or why this part has to be changed. I’m involved in the process of creation and I give very clear notes to the artists about the strengths and potential pitfalls of the works. Then I leave it – I never pursue them to make the changes. I must believe in what they’re making.

“You see, I believe what’s lacking in this country is trust – the bureaucrats don’t believe in the artists and vice versa. And that impacts the art-making because the projects become fraught with misunderstandings.”

Ong’s strong defence of artists and the integrity of their works has resulted in run-ins with the censors from Infocomm Media Development Authority. In SIFA 2015 and 2016, a few works had to be modified or pulled out altogether. Oddly, in Ong’s fourth and final year as the festival director, the censors have allowed all the works to be shown – no request to amend works has been made.

But, asked what he is proudest of, Ong says it is the OPEN, the pre-festival of talks, workshops, films and other art events that lead up to main festival SIFA. Helmed by OPEN director Noorlinah Mohamed, the pre-festival is possibly the only one of its kind in the world.

Ong says: “The purpose of OPEN is to create a broad and general engagement with the public, to build a certain type of consciousness, a certain type of attitude to art. We wanted to create a kind of Camelot where there is a belief system and a space for really asking questions.”

This year, the OPEN festival opened with Art As Res Publicae, a two-night civil discourse on so-called taboo topics in Singapore such as LGBTQ issues and euthanasia.

“It is the most distinctive feature of SIFA … if there’s anything I hope they will carry on with after this last edition with me as festival director, it is the OPEN.”

After this edition, Gaurav Kripalani, the managing and artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre, takes over as festival director.

(RELATED: Where Singapore Repertory Theatre MD Gaurav Kripalani had his top dining experiences.)

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

PHOTO (Ong Keng Sen) Jeannie Ho