Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Noorlinah Mohamed. Photo: Jeannie Ho.

Full Circle: Interview with Noorlinah Mohamed

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By Kathy Rowland

(2100 words, 20-minute read) 

ArtsEquator sat down for an in-depth interview with Noorlinah Mohamed about her role as the Director of the O.P.E.N, the challenges of programming for diverse publics, and her feelings about saying goodbye to the O.P.E.N community. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ArtsEquator (AE): The O.P.E.N. is conceived as a pre-festival public academy – to create fallow ground for the main Festival, SIFA. What was it about the context in Singapore that made the organisers feel this necessary?

Noorlinah Mohamed (NM): Ong Keng Sen initiated the idea. When he came on board in 2014, he wanted to make it different. He thought of two changes. One was to embed ‘international’, making it the Singapore International Festival of Arts, and the second was to introduce the concept of the O.P.E.N. He invited several artists he knew to helm the O.P.E.N. When he asked me, the reason was clearly my public engagement work. And I’ve always done public engagement work and within the purview of the word ‘public engagement’ I put ‘education’. Generally, what I’m interested in is the publics in the larger context – it doesn’t matter to me if the words ‘community building’ or ‘community bonding’ or ‘community theatre’ or ‘theatre in the community’ or ‘arts in the community’ are there, but it’s actually about the non-artists, non professional artists. But it doesn’t mean that they are less artistic or they’re not involved in something creative on a daily basis. So he knew that was also my area of interest. He said, “I’d like you to rethink what is education within the arts, of the arts, and what is engagement.”

AE: No one ever talks about the public, singular, anymore. Did you have a vision of what some of these publics look like?

NM: I’ve been thinking about this since 2003 when I first began. I knew that the publics…the ‘s’ is about variety and variedness and diversity. I can’t imagine what they should look like, other than the possibility of me being surprised by who they are. When I first began, it was with one community in prison working with a visual artist, Felicia Low. We were engaging with a group of people that supposedly were rather homogenous, because they were inmates. when you talk about community, or a community project, you talk about them as being somewhat homogenous. So when we went in the thing we knew was that they were inmates incarcerated for a crime, but when you engage with them, you realise that they are human beings first rather than a homogenous cluster. The level of variegation and ideas presented by these individuals was very diverse. that was the first time it dawned on me also that the notion of “community theatre”, or “arts in the community”, tends to have an aspect of homogeneity that can be a bit problematic.

AE: Doesn’t that make it hard?

NM: Funnily enough, if you embrace that diversity, you find there’s not a problem. When all these diverse groups of communities come together, you have this general variegation of publics. if you embrace that diversity, you realise that there is a common thread: their interest in participating in an arts project. So let art be the glue, the focus, rather than “Is this a KPI served to bond a community? Is it diverse, racially, age-wise?” I can solve all that by focusing on just the art itself.

Ho Rui An. Image: A.G. Mesa
Ho Rui An. Image: A.G. Mesa

AE: How did these experiences help you programme O.P.E.N.?

NM: The area of programming for O.P.E.N. is 3 parts because I work collaboratively with Keng Sen, as well as Bee Thiam, who’s the O.P.E.N. film curator. O.P.E.N. is meant to be an educational platform because we’re re-examining how to educate. So my purpose is to glue all that together, apart from my own signature projects every year. This year I have 2 signature projects – O.P.E.N. Kitchens and Art as Res Publicae with Keng Sen. This year, We also wanted to feature younger artists, 35 and below, because we’ve always featured more mature artists in the past. That’s why we have Ho Rui An curating something on his own (Rui An was a participant in 2014 for the 89plus). This time, he’s not just a participant but he’s also curating other works by his peers: Lantian from Dubai and Zou Zhao, another Singaporean, but they’re all lecture-performances based. And lecture-performance also happens to tie in with Robert Zhao’s work in ‘The Nature Museum’. So you see the connections we layer the connections by saying, “don’t just select another performance lecture, but can we also look at the larger scaffold of the work that we have done in the last 4 years?” Because this is our fourth year, it’s almost like a wrap-up. So there’s like a cycle, you know, does that make sense?

AE: Yes, but it also leads to the question of what happens after. What are your feelings about this being your last O.P.E.N.? Will O.P.E.N. continue in the new festival?

NM: If it does, I do not think it will be in the same ilk, but I really do not know.

AE: Is O.P.E.N. something that you could carry on beyond SIFA?

NM: We would love to, not just myself, but the team. What I love about the O.P.E.N. is that it’s always changing in terms of the content, but it never veers away from a strong ethos of public engagement, to allow people to try different ideas, and different ways of unpacking issues, and that it’s always about the public and publics.

It’s engaging and enabling people to the openness to do a variety of things. So they may come for Art as Res Publicae even if they don’t know what it is, because they have this one pass. Then they could then go to the cinema because the pass allows them. then they go to Spectres, for an exhibition, or engage with Tan Biyun’s O.P.E.N. Histories, or Sidd Perez and Vuth Lyno’s Unsettled Assignments without fearing to pay for each event and risk not enjoying it.

O.P.E.N. Histories: Exchanges. Image: Ho Rui An
O.P.E.N. Histories: Exchanges. Image: Ho Rui An

AE: Was one of the reasons for this single ticket concept to open the way to a variety of different works for the audience?

NM: Yes! It’s about openness, O-P-E-N. O for openness, P participate, E engage and negotiate, right? And the idea of O.P.E.N. is really 3 things that we encourage the audience to consider when they get the ticket. (a) come to a performance that you know you’d enjoy because you like this kind of work; (b) go to something that you can bring other friends to, so that it becomes social; (c) because the O.P.E.N. pass enables you to try something new, be adventurous! Go to something that you may not necessarily have seen or feel quite connected to.

AE: Do you feel O.P.E.N. has achieved these objectives that you’ve mentioned and how do you measure it?

NM: We do the surveys. The first year, we found that at the very max, there was one lady that attended almost 13 events. The median was 6 or 5. And it has been consistent like that every year. So there are a lot of repeat attendance. And we’ve become friends…I recognise almost everyone in the O.P.E.N. because I’m always there every night. Some from the arts community, but largely no.

And a lot of young people, that is the joy of this. A lot of young people are willing to try something more…out of the ordinary. They all say that the O.P.E.N. is fresh, that it’s different and that it enables them to cross genres. It does not mean that they did that the first year in 2014, but when I see them again in 2015, they were trying that…cross-genre. We have a growing community of O.P.E.N. visitors- they are regular buyers, and the regularity increases yearly.

Image: Garçon Design
Image: Garçon Design

AE: Tell us about Art as Res Publicae.

NM: There are two nights. On the 28th, we’re using Wills and Successions as the play. on the 29th, its about aging. But the topic looks at the complexities of pluralism in Singapore. The commentators unpack perspectives on that topic, not necessarily specific to Wills and Successions. Therefore, Wills and Successions must be seen as a stimulus, and the commentators are almost like literature reviews. It’s like a performance in research, or research in performance, or performance of research.

AE: Is there a particular kind of format that you’re using?

NM: Yes. We’re looking at deliberative polling, which is our method of choosing the discussants, and deliberative discussion, a method of active listening that we practiced at a workshop. We’re looking at the ways in which to live in a democratic society, and therefore that mode of conduct is to see how we can engage in discussions in a democratic way.

AE: You’ve also got something else about listening in your programming…

NM: Yeah, which is Zou Zhao.

Image: Weizhong Deng
Zou Zhao. Image: Weizhong Deng

AE: Is that a skill that is lacking in Singapore? Or do you think it’s a result of the way that information is replicated and spread now? Is it geographical and cultural, or is it something that’s a function of the times?

NM: That’s a very complex question. If you ask me as an educator, I would say its endemic. It starts in the school system. We don’t listen. I’m talking about not just instructional listening – that is something that we do very well because instructional giving is something that we do very well in Singapore – but we don’t listen to cues…I honestly attribute it to our school system. Look, if literature is removed from your curriculum, you won’t have enough practice to write with care. And you won’t have enough practice to imagine the possibility of the other. And that, to me, is a problem that is getting much more obvious now, than in my time. Because we have to take literature, whether we pass it or not, we’re learning something.

AE: Over the past 3 years, which do you think, you know, were the most successful O.P.E.N. events?

NM: I must say there are several, successful only because they generated a kind of openness in the minds and hearts of the O.P.E.N. audiences who managed to catch them. When I say open, I’m not saying that they all must love it, but there was a kind of shift in the minds, and whether the shift is discomfort or whether the shift is resonance, it varies from people to people. One of my most memorable was doing ‘Ways of Wandering’ (2014) over 2 massive spaces like Tiong Bahru Park and MacRitchie Reservoir because we wanted to look at Legacy and we were choosing these sites because they were representative of the 1970s Singapore.

Thing that affected me most last year was Ibsen’s Ghost. When euthanasia is talked about, we talk about the legality, but most importantly the morality. In Ibsen’s Ghosts, there are a lot of ethical issues, and that’s why I like it. when Keng Sen told me that he was wondering if he should bring it in, I said, “Oh my goodness, Keng Sen, you should bring it just for the ethical problems that this piece of work generates.”

Unsettled Assignments. Image: Vuth Lyno
Unsettled Assignments. Image: Vuth Lyno

AE: You don’t shy away from controversy in programming OPEN?

NM: You shouldn’t! Because then you generate discussions. if you hadn’t been able to watch Ghosts, you only think of it as an abstract notion of what ethics really is. Now, you have a case in point. Ethics is a construct, evolving over time. So the more we see case studies that are pushing these, the more we encounter our own boundaries. Am I requesting that the O.P.E.N. audience, after they watch that show, will be so open that the next show they see, the are totally accepting? No. The point is to be self-reflexive of your own blind spots. Why are you uncomfortable? Not just to say “I’m uncomfortable with that,” but why are you uncomfortable with that? And how do we then, as people, negotiate that? Wouldn’t that develop society better? I don’t know, but my hopefulness and idealism is that it will. I feel it will. Because it makes us…empathetic, and if that is the reason why we do arts, then we should have that platform. That’s why Arts As Res Publicae.

AE: What’s your wish for this final O.P.E.N.? What do you want the audiences to know?

NM: It’s definitely different this year as There’s more participation. And I do want all the O.P.E.N. participants I call them O.P.E.N. participants this year – to really participate. And I want to say that I hope they’ll miss us. (laughs) I want them to miss us, you know. Yeah, I hope they will miss us! Because I will miss them.


The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017 is the fourth and final edition helmed by Ong Keng Sen as Festival Director. It runs from June 28 to September 9, covering three months, commencing with The O.P.E.N., which is the pre-festival of ideas.

Noorlinah Mohamed is director of The O.P.E.N. She is no stranger to the Singapore arts scene, having started her artistic career as a theatre actress as well as an arts educator. She has performed with various Singapore theatre companies including TheatreWorks, Wild Rice and Cake Theatre as well as internationally in Asia, Europe and the US. As a teaching artist, she undertakes artist residencies in schools, develops curriculum as well as professional development for teaching artists and teachers in arts pedagogy. Noorlinah is a recipient of the JCCI Cultural Award (2008) and the Women’s Weekly Women of our Time Award (2005) for her work in the arts. She obtained her PhD in Arts Education from the University of Warwick in 2003.

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