A Conversation with Ong Keng Sen

Photo Credit: Jeannie Ho

Interviewed by: Rachel Mah, Ryan Lim and Toby Wu

Perspectives had the chance to speak with arts veteran Ong Keng Sen, long-standing artistic director of TheatreWorks, director of the film adaptation of Singaporean classic Army Daze, and who also up till last year helmed the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Ong’s comments on his tenure as SIFA director galvanized a wide conversation on censorship and control within Singapore’s arts and culture sectors.

We spoke to him remotely through Skype – stepping back from the heat and buzz of Singapore’s arts scene, Ong has resumed his doctoral studies in New York University. Our lively chat drew upon Ong’s experiences as a theatre, film and festival director, as we sought to situate them against the wider states of the respective industries and probe the kinds of power still lingering within.


Perspectives Film Festival: You are known foremost as a theatre practitioner, but you also have done work for the big screen – beginning with directing Army Daze. Coming from theatre, did you feel like you had to acquire certain skillsets or sensibilities for this adaptation?

Ong Keng Sen: You have a whole new way of organizing time, because time is very different between the two – in theatre it’s accepted that the process is luxurious, long and private, whereas in film it’s very short and you have to plan everything ahead. The stakes are higher for theatre in terms of its liveness on stage, but to me there isn’t that same liveness in film, because there is so much editing and so much is dependent on how the editor works.

PFF: Were there parts of the filmmaking process you found challenging to get used to?

OKS: Back then I didn’t feel like continuing making film, because I felt like I would personally like to edit myself. When you don’t edit personally – you don’t touch the machinery yourself, when you’re giving directions – I feel that it’s not really your film. And neither did I want to direct an editor.

Of course, you’re giving directions too in theatre, but I do have the skillsets to design the lighting, to choreograph certain things myself. I know every stage of the work, and I can step into any single portfolio. When it came to filmmaking, I ultimately could not step into the technicalities of editing – hence it couldn’t be my film. It’s my very strict way of looking at it.

PFF: Did you feel any resistance from other filmmakers when you were embarking on this project (Army Daze)?

OKS: I didn’t do the theatre version, but as artistic director of TheatreWorks, I was very close to it when it was first staged nonetheless. Michael wanted me to work on it [the film], and Cathay also wanted me to direct it, so it came about very naturally. We must remember that at that time there was no film industry, and there was hardly any filmmaker like we have now. I feel that it is important to cross borders and not be territorial. You may have written this, but someone else can also write the screenplay.

Army Daze (1989), dir. Ong Keng Sen.

PFF: So now that there’s a more established film industry, do you have any inclination to collaborate with other filmmakers? And in what ways?

OKS: I collaborate with a lot of filmmakers, for example with Boo Junfeng in the stage production of Fear of Writing in 2011. When I decided not to major in filmmaking myself, it was also because there’s so many open spaces for collaboration, as long as you are creative and porous.

PFF: Do you think the inverse is also true? Do filmmakers want to integrate elements of the theatrical into their works, because it doesn’t seem to be as common although it is an open space like you’ve described it.

OKS: I feel that theatre is more interdisciplinary, and Singapore’s film industry is still formulaic in many ways. Take Jafar Panahi (director of 3 Faces) for example, and the way he is always challenging not just political boundaries, but also artistic ones. If he didn’t have a political restriction and were just normally making a film at home, I’d think that according to industry standards here, a Panahi film wouldn’t pass muster. That’s why we don’t have a Tarantino or such individuals appearing. No doubt we are a very young film culture, but we still think so much in compartments because that’s the way the political structure has shaped our people here. You never really have auteurs or filmmakers who are doing more beyond the commercial formula, or in whatever way they want to.

Let’s say Lav Diaz, he makes these slow films, but Singaporeans will never think of that, because the standards here tell us “let’s do it in 100 minutes or so”. We rarely think beyond what’s already been tested. Can we think in a way free of the bondage of commercial film and its financial considerations? I don’t think Singaporean filmmakers are thinking of other criteria like artistic rigour; its either box office or winning awards. Yet it is a chicken and egg thing – you can’t win awards if you’re just doing industry films.

PFF: What then do you think is a more sustainable and holistic model of defining success? Do we see the same chains in theatre as well?

OKS: In the theatre industry, there are people who make personal theatre projects and not necessarily repertory projects to sell. I do one theatre project a year, and I don’t think of it in that ‘I must make a film for commercial reasons’ category. I think a filmmaker here who comes immediately to mind is Tan Pin Pin. She can say that it’s a personal project, she wants to do these films. Whether or not it’s going to show in Singapore, she will still make it regardless. I think that there are few filmmakers like that in the industry.

It’s going to be a more distant dream as Singapore becomes more expensive and everyone tries to survive. Those personal auteur projects where money isn’t a consideration – not just because you are independent or wealthy, but because you are searching for some other personal pursuit in your work – I think that may disappear in Singapore filmmaking. The scene is very much compromised by the way in which everyone thinks that a Jack Neo film is the way to get investors. But internationally, there are companies and individuals who invest and do not expect box office returns, as we can see in the Cannes, Venice, or the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). We just don’t have that in Singapore. Artists need to take the lead in saying that ‘I’m going to do this regardless of what the market for it is’.

Singapore Gaga (2005), dir. Tan Pin Pin.

PFF: Thinking about this commercial mechanism of the film industry – do you think it justifies the approach taken by the government, when it decides how to support filmmakers? Could there be a certain kind of optics at play?

OKS: I think the government supporting filmmakers is also a way of control. You’re probably not going to get government funding if you deal with serious issues or do a To Singapore With Love. You can be commercially viable only if you are “laugh a minute, entertainment in another”, and you can get government grants only if are uncritical. It’s a double bind. I’m generally speaking here, but there’s largely no political will by filmmakers to make statement films or critically incisive ones.

Whatever the nuance of the situation is, it’s predicated on money. And the only way to break that bondage is to declare as an artist, that I am going to do this regardless of the money, and that also asserts ownership. The artist must want to make the film, regardless. Panahi wants to make a film and that’s how his films develop into a very specific type, under the current censorship he faces. Actually, it cannot be the government telling us “let’s all be creative, let’s all now make Indie films” – it’ll just be another campaign which falls on its face.

PFF: So let’s say in your role at SIFA, did you find that vision difficult – to be in a capacity beyond the creative and still having that initiative to do different things?

OKS: I didn’t find it difficult, because in the end you have to be an artistic director to nurture a scene and that’s my training since 1988. I am also trained to balance the books in the art world. So I don’t need a CEO to come in from the commercial sector – they are the ones who don’t know how to sell art, because they’re trained to sell commercial products. Art is not commercial.

In SIFA, I saw myself as having an additional national role – through the way that I commissioned projects. If certain artists like Sonny Liew were not seen positively, commissioning him becomes also a kind of endorsement, because for one it’s using national funds. I was not only curating or nurturing, but being an ombudsman – checking and balancing the political system and its administration, so to speak.

PFF: When you talk about the boundaries placed on the artist, funding is a recurring issue as in the Sonny Liew instance, and it’s interesting how the boundaries are moving into these less visible areas. Is this a direction in which control is evolving?

OKS: It’s more complex than that because the government isn’t the only player. The first level of control is to demand box office films – that comes from many sources, but it’s a situation that the government certainly prefers. The government suggests that the economy is the a possible way to surpass censorship. If you can sell art in an art market, we may not censor you. We may allow nudity because the market justifies it. The economy is the god here, rather than a certain ethics or sense of public justice.

With regards to funding, thinking you can’t bite the hand that feeds you leads us to a point where we stop learning how to be self-reflexive and critical of systems we live in. If we, as a society, are a maturing family unit, we need to be in dialogue with our paternalistic elements.

But if these things get taken out of public visibility, we get an immature society which becomes equally as censorious. To the extent that we don’t need censoring bodies – because now it’s a Mrs. Ong from Ang Mo Kio or a Mr. Krishnan from Yishun who’s saying we can’t have say a gay pride. It’s thus a problematic situation where a single opinion becomes the way to curb public expression. Single complaints need to be dealt with; the situation becomes untenable and reactionary.

PFF: So it’s a public discourse that still has not developed satisfactorily. One of the reasons why we embarked on the theme of Institutions was that many public debates or conversations feel like they’re caught in egocentric frames of thinking – people are preoccupied with what we alone as individuals can do. Do people no longer have any faith in institutions and their ability to galvanize, and if so what can we do to restore it? Or should we indeed just be concerned with ourselves as individuals?

OKS: I feel Singaporeans have issues trusting institutions, At best we’ve all become skeptical of institutions, because of the way politics work. But to say that the alternative, being egocentric, is the only means of recourse is a rather black-and-white way of looking at it.

If we really believe in a democracy, we shouldn’t be panicking as soon as somebody says something, nor when the government says ‘we don’t really like the situation’. There’s just so much self-censorship, and even before the government says anything definitive. And this is telling, because it means we’re no longer confident of having these discussions. It means we’ve lost the meaning of a democracy and a public forum – forums where everyone is heard, and then decisions are made on the basis of say, ethics or public justice.

I think it’s something we need to ask ourselves – what should we expect from our institutions. Is it about responding to these random hysterics and reactions of individuals (after all, how much of it is engineered?) Or is it about embodying a sense of ethics and public justice, to decide what should be done, whether certain yeses and noes should be taken? So this idea of egocentrism versus trusting institutions comes down to neither, because it’s about allowing all to exist, and somewhere along the lines somebody has to decide, after due consideration of all representations. It has to be ones we elect, the ones we pay to serve the nation. They cannot bail out by saying ‘let the market decide, let Singaporeans decide’. And that’s why we need to vote carefully.

PFF: And what about alternative kinds of institutions, especially informal ones? One of the things you embarked this year was the Curators’ Academy, an alternative to existing forms of education for curators. What kinds of gaps are there to address, in our arts and culture discourses?

OKS: We are re-emphasizing curators as somebody, a person or a group, who wants to do something in their community. So you don’t need to be academically qualified in film history, but you need the desire to activate something in the community. It’s about people with individual responsibilities, who believe in independent action. These curators listen to the micro-notes or micro-tones in the community. Because right now, there’s an abdication of responsibility on both sides (the institution, and the individual) – you have the curator and artist who are self-censoring, and you have a paymaster who is saying ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’.

There is very little courage by Singapore curators, programmers and institutions, because everyone is just too afraid. Individuals become skeptical because they are seasoned to self-censorship. In the end, a Singapore with only control systems will stall. There may be a film industry, but it’s lacking that someone, a Wong Kar-Wai or a Panahi, to be critical about these boundaries.

PFF: Given that there is so much inertia and ambiguity in the cultural scene, what are steps we can take to overcome this, and make these small progresses in discourse visible to everyone?

OKS: For us artists and curators, it’s valuable to work outside of Singapore. Not because you are in a larger pond, but because the Singapore situation is very unreal and manufactured, and there are perspectives which are chronically missing. Rather than looking at the issue in a holistic way, we are conditioned into reproducing existing perspectives – that’s how we end up not with innovators, not with leaders, but only managers. Young people are going to feel after a while that this is not real, I want to be somewhere else that is more real and with a more nuanced situation. So one way to do it is to be inside-outside, so that you gain your own reflexivity.

I think it’s also up to us to archive and put forward new legacies of change agents who are doing important things, rather than self-congratulatory hype. There are many change agents working in Singapore – but why is it that someone like Tan Pin Pin is never mentioned? We need to develop alternative archives, to add to the myths that have been told for us. We can only do so by developing our own narratives.

PFF: So you mentioned two things – the current situation being unreal or insufficient, and the need to develop alternative archives. Drawing back to the kinds of films we’re getting, is it because there is a ‘real’ part of Singapore that’s not being depicted? Just like how some are upset with Crazy Rich Asians because of an inadequate depiction.

OKS: Searching for this real is also kind of a fallacy. What someone like Panahi puts out there is also unreal in many ways – many Iranians whom I know, and who are living with the system, disagree with what he’s doing because they think Panahi is exploiting politics to advance his own discourse. But this recognition is also important, because it means we are also maturing – accepting the filmmaker’s perspective, rather than insisting on a realist depiction. And in the case of Crazy Rich Asians, we don’t have any local filmmakers’ perspective to rely on, and neither are we supporting any. That’s why we only have a Hollywood perspective to either reject or kowtow to.

Crazy Rich Asians has once again stereotyped Asia to become Hong Kong. But when we say Crazy Rich Asians is not our own perspective, then it means we have to take up the mantle and develop it here. Whatever it may be, even if its critical of wealth culture, or of Chinese supremacy. Its not enough to complain and bitch. Speak out against censorship (because our own perspective may very well be censored). When have we heard multiple public voices speak out against censorship in recent years?

It’s also similar to what has been said about the new SIFA, that there’s problems and not enough identity. To me, the question is: Is there a kind of control, which is endorsing a lack of identity – are there ‘puppeteers’ behind the ’puppets’? Are there people with money who don’t want an identity to develop, because an identity opens up critical discourse?

PFF: Have you had a look at the 2018 – 2022 arts plan yet? What do you think of their attempts to start a discussion on what we collectively want our arts to be?

OKS: To me it’s less of a plan for artists than a plan for the community. It’s concerned about the supposed voice of the community, over singular, real voices who hold the mirror up to society.
Think about Federico Fellini, a very special filmmaker who came from a singular point of view. The decadence of La Dolce Vita came from this singular perspective, and not because someone decided a collective direction for filmmakers. Art is different from this culture or community you want to advance into becoming a developed nation. Of course art is a part of culture or community, but it is also a very specific commitment to having singular voices speak out. For example, if there was an Italian government saying at that time ‘Fellini’s films are too ugly and grotesque, we have to censor them’, we wouldn’t have these wonderful films, all of which belong to a singular imagination.

Something gets lost when we say art should do this. Art has to grow and become itself, including art that is critical and grotesque. You can think of the most important art films in our world – Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm of the Senses – where we experience depravity, human potential and power. It’s no longer about being sentimental or embodying a community vision. It’s about looking at humanity in a deep and complex way. It’s a loss for us when we deny ourselves these perspectives.

PFF: How can the institution effectively nurture the qualities in the artist, which you talked about just now, and refine an individualized perspective?

OKS: An institution can only benefit from having the courage to disagree with dominant narratives. They need to be self-respecting and courageous, rather than seeing themselves as a gatekeeper or manager of resources. A manager of resources would immediately spy someone who is different, and they become a disciplining force rather than an innovative one.

PFF: If all the institutions are as homogenized as you have described them to be, why do you think there haven’t been any reasonable alternatives, like a salon de refuses? Is it just about people not having courage?

OKS: They also believe they need the money to survive, and they work within the system. In the genre of film, nobody is truly empowered to make personal projects. Instead, we’re reproducing a certain type of film which we know can get grants or investors, because we all know how to write a film that will get approved. You’re not going to have a gay Apprentice, not at least if you are seeking some government funding. I’m told by many of my filmmaker friends that you can have conflict between the races, but it must be resolved by the end of the film if you’re looking for some kind of support. What you get then is the situation I described – it’s not real, because the problems at hand are of course more complex than what your industry 100-minute film can ever accommodate. The diversity is being funneled, and alternatives are prevented from gaining traction.

PFF: To wrap it up, how do you imagine a healthy institutional scene to look like – now that you’ve problematized certain aspects and experienced them in different capacities throughout your career?

OKS: There needs to be a separation of powers, because what we have right now is fundamentally a confusion of roles. Do we focus on being national? Do we focus on developing artists? If you’re going to support talents, then let’s fund them for what they are, and leave the law to prevent things you fear may happen. I’m trained as a lawyer, and we all know that we need a judiciary, separate from the executive branch and legislature. And we need an independent administration not tied to a political party.
I think it’s unfeasible to censor and fund at the same time, to say that ‘we can’t fund this film because it’s problematic and doesn’t align with our interest’. These are the basic issues which we need to confront. Be transparent – what’s the mission of this institution? If it is to develop our artists and media-makers, then keep to this role, rather than become a gatekeeper. Everybody is rushing to do the same job, and right now we’re unwilling to let go of funding as censorship. These are the first steps we need to take to embrace alternative voices – even the egocentric ones – else all we get are institutionalized voices.