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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Ong Keng Sen: Pushing the conversation

Theatre stalwart Ong Keng Sen returns to helm Singapore theatre company TheatreWorks, after being away for a decade to complete his PhD in Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts in New York. He was also director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts from 2013 to 2017. 

The company has been rebranded as T:>Works, which signals a redefinition of the idea of performance for our times, allowing a folding in of visual arts, films, choreographies, publishing, residencies and more into the work of the 35-year-old company. The DOS command-inspired identity, designed by Singaporean artist Heman Chong who is also the company’s chairperson, represents a return to a more analogue experience centred on “the user of a system”, or the audience. 

During a virtual engagement session held last week, Dr Ong outlined new initiatives for the company, including a thought leadership programme titled Curating No-thing, comprising free lectures, clinics and consultations, which will be conducted from May to June. The festival of women, N.O.W. returns for a second edition from 15 July to 2 August 2020 under festival director Noorlinah Mohamed, and will be entirely digitalised. 

ArtsEquator had a conversation with Dr Ong about returning to the Singapore art scene, during which he spoke his mind about Singapore’s position in the region and the world, and the role that T:>Works occupies.  

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

ArtsEquator: Looking at responses to COVID-19, some of the Southeast Asian arts scenes have maybe been better at gathering themselves online, compared to Singapore. We like to compare ourselves to the west, but should we now pivot back to the region and look at Southeast Asia as a source of strength?

Ong Keng Sen: Actually I believe that in terms of the region, Singapore is behind in thought leadership. I’ll give you one very clear example, if you look at what’s happening in Indonesia, they have no money, but they are much further ahead in terms of tactical media and in taking their media over, by underground radios, etc. I think here most of us are afraid because there are very strict media regulations. I would say that there is very little leadership which is independent in Singapore. We have nothing to teach or share with Southeast Asia because we are unable to really lead independently. We can only lead when we get a grant from the National Arts Council. We think we can lead because we are so organised, but actually we have so little thought leadership. 

Bangkok is way ahead in terms of design and visual arts. Even Vietnam is very far ahead – they are dealing with strict censorship but there’s quite a lot of independent thinking on the ground. We have to ask why. It’s not just about having a very strict government. I think we have been infantilised. That’s a strong sense for me. 

AE: What can we do to learn from our regional neighbours? 

OKS: It’s different for each person but for me, I’ve learnt through the hard way of traveling and meeting the local people, making lifelong friendships with them. If we don’t ever leave our reality here, we think this is all there is, which is to become more and more established in the Singapore way. But actually once you are in the rice fields of Jogja, you begin to see strategic communication with communities in a very different way from what’s happening in Singapore. I gained a lot from that – having this inside-outside perspective to Singapore.

AE: Now that we can’t travel, it might actually be easier to connect with our neighbours, for example through Instagram Live. Is this actually quite a good time to build solidarity in Southeast Asia?

OKS: Any time is a good time. It just needs a kind of urgent purpose. Everybody says they want to meet, but as soon as it’s not done by somebody else, the desire breaks down. Right? The recent Young Curators Academy in Berlin had over 30 people from around the world. They are chatting like crazy on WhatsApp, though it’s very much a kind of show and tell. It needs to be a much more deliberate discourse, where it’s not just talking shop. Maybe it’s hard to connect in very big networks, but it’s also about tearing ourselves away from what is happening locally. 

Now everybody’s having a virtual presence. Everybody is just trying to have more noise on the digital platform. But who is seriously creating solid solidarities? One of the expectations of the Young Curators Academy was that [the Maxim Gorki Theatre] should create this solidarity network. For me that would go against independent solidarities, because you’re waiting for the big brother or big sister to create it. And then you belong to it. The solidarities must be embarked on by the individuals themselves rather than us saying, okay, let’s now create solidarities. And when it is self-initiated, how do you keep the chatter out and keep the focus on major political topics that concern people in the group?

AE: In that regard, what do you see is T:>Works’ role in initiating solidarities? How do you prevent that “big brother or big sister” thing from happening, but still have a presence on a company level?

OKS: There are already clusters of young artists and arts managers doing this locally. It’s very important not to think that we’re the only ones doing it, because there are a lot of private and independent solidarities being developed even right now as we speak. Actually, you know, in terms of resources, everybody is sharing the same pie, right? Bigger companies like WILD RICE, I really sympathise with them because they have 30-strong staff. So actually, what’s left for actual programming is quite diffused. Because yes there’s more money, but there’s also more expenditure. The big players are not that big when you look at how they have to prioritise.

I feel like everybody has the same resource, which is self-will, and it’s about how much you want that self-will to be harnessed to this particular project. In a lot of international work, every time you have festival directors or artistic directors saying “oh we don’t have the budget, we’re so sorry, we’d love to do it”. It’s not that you don’t have the budget, it’s where you’re prioritising the budget. I would say it’s very important not to cannibalise these kinds of solidarities projects. If it is about leading the programming, yes, we can do that. But if it’s about solidarities, I think that we have to consciously not appropriate the platform.

AE: Who are these younger groups?

OKS: Some of the people who are doing interesting work, for me, is soft/WALL/studs, for example. I think they’re not really galvanised around Singapore politics, because they’re inside a very playful discourse space. But I like what they’re doing. Of course, there are younger arts managers, like Mok Cui Yin. There are lots of different individuals involved, like Corrie Tan. And I think it needs a lot more, to have a kind of, how should I say it? A “front” to negotiate with the National Arts Council. It’s a really ironic thing that the Arts Resource Hub is now no longer run by freelancers. 

So it’s a difficult space. I feel like the kind of self-reflexivity that is needed by leaders is actually important. People have talked about the role that curators play, to take care of a collection. But it’s also about controlling the collection, controlling who has access. That’s the dark side of what curators do. In the same way, if you are a thought leader, the dark side is that you can also control who has access and who doesn’t. In that sense for me, the National Arts Council is controlling the scene rather than letting it really become a democratic space.

Thinking about what you said earlier – are we a leader? Or are we falling far behind in Southeast Asia? For me what’s very clear is that in the ‘90s, Singapore stood a chance to become a strong leader. But then because of the excessive control in the last 20 years, and I feel that for our government control is more important than innovation, what’s happened is that we’ve fallen behind. 

AE: What are the conditions or qualities that are needed in terms of thought leadership in Singapore, moving forward?

OKS: I think that there needs to be a very strong sense of giving ownership, enabling ownership and stepping back. I see a very clear case in Taiwan. I was in Taiwan when the whole pandemic broke out. Everybody wore masks, everyone was taking ownership and responsibility. The Taiwanese citizens have always been very strong in how they deal with ecological issues. While in Singapore, you just have to go to a HDB estate and you see how badly people are at recycling. There is no real ownership and responsibility. That’s why there is a need to travel, to see dualities and multiplicities. And how different countries are dealing with certain political issues. 

Before this, people didn’t travel for connections when they had the chance to travel. International exchange was not very galvanised by the Singaporean artists. There were some, like Alfian Sa’at, for example. But then all this becomes locked up into a market sensitivity. When you’re connecting in terms of performing arts markets, that’s a little bit dangerous too, in my view.

AE: What does digitalisation actually mean to you in our context today?

OKS: Noorlinah and I were in discussion of how we should digitalise some of the productions of the N.O.W. festival. It became like, “Should we have a good filmmaker? If people can’t see properly, they will get bored”. And of course, there’s always a sense of, ok the actors and the director are women and then the filmmaker is a man. These are all large considerations that we were going through. And the realisation that, look, digitalisation doesn’t mean over prioritising that process, right? Because it still needs to come down to what we can afford. And at the same time, how not to subvert this new platform, by immediately setting the criteria so high, that we can’t do it unless we invest in lots of technology, unless we invest in people who may be inside the [filmmaking/digital] industry, but have no interest in live performance. There is a need for us to be very considered when we use technology and to ask ourselves, when are we going overboard. This is a really difficult challenge right now.

AE: What do you think about the responses that other companies have come up with, in terms of putting their performances online and activities like that? 

OKS: It’s been lovely to see some of the older works via streaming now. But I feel like my objective now, together with the people who are working deeply with T:>Works, is that we want to create new work online. And that’s why we decided not to release our digital legacy archive until later. We need to make new work that can push the conversation forward, not just in giving vocational skills but actually to push the questions elsewhere where I feel like Singapore is falling behind because we had too much money. We have money. For the bigger companies in Singapore, S$50,000 [for one work] is already considered a very small budget. 

I have friends who are not from the arts sector telling me “Oh my God, we can’t get used to working from home”, but as artists, we’re quite used to working at home and motivating ourselves. So there’s this whole kind of phase where the world is inverted and we begin to see that we really have to reprioritise. I would like to see – and I know it’s very difficult, because it’s hard to even spend money on this kind of thing – I would not want to spend more than 50% of a budget right now on technology. I would like to try to keep our focus still on human labour. That, I think, is important.

AE: What do you think is the role of the arts now? 

OKS: The role of the arts is, as always, to lead the way. That’s why in Singapore, there’s always been so much fear about what the arts can do, what arts can become. Because the arts is inspiring, and the arts has a certain way of making us rethink our life. The arts – not just in Singapore, but all through the world, all through the times – have been transformers of paradigms. This fear of the arts, from the forming of the nation to now, led to control via all sorts of different ways – Internal Security Act, censorship, laws on gatherings and assemblies – because the founders knew rightly that actually the arts creates a different understanding of the world. We experienced lockdown much earlier than the rest of Singaporeans. We were locked down in terms of censorship, we were locked down in so many different ways. We are masters of survival in lockdowns. And we have to continue to do this but also continue to try to spread the message in our own ways. 

AE: On a personal level, how do you feel about coming back now to the situation we’re facing today? 

OKS: When I was finished with my PhD about mid November, the feeling then was that actually, what can I do back in Singapore? On some level I felt that I was overqualified. I was feeling not very motivated to take a big role. When you are living in Singapore, you think after a while that there’s really no need for me to do this kind of work. Many people are doing it. And the independent space that’s left in Singapore is very little. This pandemic gave me a bigger purpose, because there is a sense that there is still a need. It was a basic thing of, if we are talking about thought leadership, why are we keeping quiet during the pandemic? Beyond releasing our archives, what else can we do? 

It is very personal because if I want to come back to Singapore and really practise here, how can I make a difference, like how I made a difference in those earlier years? Because I don’t just want to add to the noise. We must remember that the arts has already been displaced in the natural ecosystem of life here, because there’s such a high entrance barrier to get in. You have to do this, you have to do that, you have to be an [Institution of a Public Character]. I think the most important person in the Singapore arts scene is the accountant, not the artist. You’re constantly auditing your accounts, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, and in the end, all this prevents us from making work. 

AE: At this point of time, what keeps you hopeful? 

OKS: I can’t think very far ahead. I must say that quite honestly, I’m really thinking now in terms of the next three or four years. I think that there is a sense of cynicism in the arts scene. You know what you can do here and what you need to do here to survive. I would like to displace that by going back to believing that we can do these things with very little. So one of the things that I have to really think about is how do we find other ways of support beyond the National Arts Council, because the National Arts Council gives you x dollars, and there’s strings attached. And x dollars is not even enough because everybody shares the pie. I think the success of TheatreWorks, and that’s why we partnered up with international foundations, was to build that kind of independence from Singapore funding. 

AE: What would you say to younger practitioners in the scene?

OKS: I would say there is a need to constantly leave the door half open, because I feel like you only grow as a young person when you are moving inside and outside of the spaces that you’re confined in. You need to be able to look at your own world from the outside. What I would encourage young artists, arts managers, writers to do is to fight for the opportunities to move out, to travel – not to disappear forever from the Singapore scene, but to really keep your feet in both worlds. When I look back at my 35 years of creating, that’s what I really value the most.

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