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OngKengSen'embarrassed'talkingaboutSingaporeinfrontofinternationalartists

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DirectoroftheSingaporeInternationalFestivalofArtsOngKengSen(Photo:JeannieHo)
DirectoroftheSingaporeInternationalFestivalofArtsOngKengSen(Photo:JeannieHo)
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SINGAPORE:TheatreveterananddirectoroftheSingaporeInternationalFestivalofArts,OngKengSenhasbeen,andstillisdeeplyinvolvedinthe

localartsscene,butheishighlycritical,evenquestioning,ifwetrulyhaveaviableartsscenehere.

Onghasbeenanartistprobablysincehewasachild–volunteeringfordramaclubsallthroughoutschool.

Hedidallthisinspiteofthefactthathisfatherthreatenedtodisownhimifhemadetheartshisfulltimecareer.Whenhisparentssawthathewas

doingwell,thathisworkreceivednationalandsubsequentlyinternationalrecognition,theychangedtheirmind.

HespoketoBharatiJagdish"OnTheRecord",andtalksaboutatimewhenhehadtocensoranotherartistinspiteofbeingagainstcensorshiphimself,

whyhecontinuestoworkinSingaporeinspiteofhisfrustrations,andwhyhehasmadethishislife’swork.

OngKengSen:Ithinkthatwehavetostillaskourselveseveryday,"Arewestillhuman?"Ithinkthatveryoftenwehavebecomemachines,andthere

aresomanylayerspreventingusfrombeingourselves.Andmoreandmore,thiskindofsocialconditioningisreallyinhibitinganindividualhuman

perspective.I'minspiredbystilltryingtobeahumanbeing,ahumanperson,andtobeabletoreachouttoanotherhumanbeing.Ithinkthatthearts

remindsofthat.Icanstillreachouttosomebodyhugaperson,orholdapersonbecauseofanimmediatefeeling,andnottoholdback.

Bharati:IsSingaporetooutilitarianasocietytoappreciatethatstandpoint,tocreatetrulypassionateartists?

Ong:IthinkthewayourGovernmenthascreatedSingaporeistheyhavereallyentrenchedcertainperspectives.I'llgiveyouanexample.Ihadayoung

persononcesaytomethatshewouldn'ttakeliterature,becauseliteratureissubjectiveandsoyoucannotget100percent,whileifyoustudyscience

ormath,youwillbeabletoscore100percent.Andthesubjectivityofliteraturemeantthatyoumayactuallyloseoutinthepointsystemintheend.And

soIwasvery,veryshockedbythis.Itshowshoweventheyoungpersonisalreadyverypractical,andthisisa15­16­year­old.Ibelievethatthis

happenedinsocietybecausetheGovernmenthasalreadycreatedsuchastructurethatit’sbecomeendemic.Sonow,evenifyoubackpedal,itdoesn't

meananything.

Bharati:Butinfact,intheEducationMinistrynow,we'vegotnewpeopleatthehelmandtheActingEducationMinister,OngYeKung,justrecently

talkedabouthowtheeducationsystemshouldallowpeoplethespaceandgivethemopportunitiestopursuetheirpassions,andIknowyoujustsaid

thatback­pedallingmaynotworkatthispoint,butwouldyouleaveyourselfopentotheideathatmaybeinagenerationortwo,wecouldactuallystart

toseerealchange?

Ong:Yeah,butIthinkSingaporeisacountrythatisalways"twostepsforward,threestepsback".We'reactuallydancingonthespot.Ifeellikethese

policies­thereisoneperson,oneminister,onecivilservantwhosayssomething­butinthelongrun,theotherstructuresinsocietywillactuallyensure

thatthesestatements,"followyourpassion",reallydon'twork.

Bharati:Whatpreciselydoyouenvisagethwartingthisefforttomoveahead,intermsoffollowingone'spassions?

let'ssayevenineducation,ifyoudecidetofollowyourpassion,atacertainpoint,becauseSingaporeissoexpensivetolive

in,manypeopleareafraidtobefreelancers.Ithinkthattheywouldjustthenfallintotherouteoftryingtoearnaliving.Let'ssaytheywenttoSOTA,but

intheend,becauseoftherealitiesofSingapore­beingsoexpensive­youwouldn'tdaretoreallygointotheartsasafulltimecareer.Thisisreality,

thateventhoughyouwanttofollowyourpassion,therestofthesocietyisconstructedinacertainway.

Ong:BecauseIfeellike

Bharati:You’rewell­establishednowandgetalotofinternationalworktoo,butinspiteofthefactthateveninthepast,therewasnomoneyinthearts,

youdidit.Youcommittedyourselftoafull­timeartscareer.Howisitthatyoumanagedtoovercometheseconstructsandfollowyourdesiretomakethe

artsafull­timecareer?

Ong:Idofeellikeatacertainpointintime,Ididn'treallyworrysomuchaboutmoney,butIthinkthatifIweregraduatingnow,withthecostofliving

beingsohigh,IthinkI'dbequiteworried.

Bharati:Youwouldn'tbeanartistifyouwerejuststartingouttoday?

Ong:Ithinkmaybenot,becauseIwouldthinktwicebeforeIleftmyjob.Iwouldreallythinkaboutit.Alsoit’sveryclearnowthatthescenehasnot

reallychangedinthearts.Atthattime,rememberthatin'88,whenIleftlawschool­Igraduated­thingswereprettybuoyant.Itwasn'taverysaturated

scene.Whilerightnowactually,youcanseethatthereissaturationintheartsscene,becausewe'reallpushedtooverproduction.Everycompanyis

doingfourplaysayear,orfourproductionsayear,butthere'snoaudienceoutthere.Thisisacrazythingwherethecountryissaturatedwith

production.We'reproducing,butthere'snodemand.

Bharati:Whyareyouproducingsomuch?

Ong:BecauseourartscouncilissayingthatyouhavetoproducetheseKPIs.Therefore,veryoften,peopleareoverproducingbeyondtheirdesire.If

youaskartistshowmuchtheyreallydesiretomaketheywillsaythatwell,ifIdidn'thavetosupportthecompanywithKPIsandalltheseindicators,I'd

doonlyonework.

Bharati:WhyaretheresomanyKPIs?

Ong:Becausetheartsisusedtoshowproductivity,andIthinkthatthisisoneofthefewcountrieswheretheartsisactuallysupportedbyEDB.

Becausethegovernmenthastoshowthattheyareproductive,includingwhenitcomestothearts.Onlyifyouareproductivethenyougetstatefunding

fromtaxpayers'money.Forme,theartsisnevergoingtobeeconomy.Ithinktheartscanbecomeanindustryatacertainpointwhenthereisamarket,

butnow,we'reputtingthecartbeforethehorse.Sowe'resayingtheremustbeanindustry,eventhoughthere'snoaudience,sothisforme,isover­

production.

Bharati:Let'stalkabouttheaudience.IunderstandthattheSingaporeInternationalFestivaloftheArtswentprettywell.FigurestheNACreleasedlast

yearshowedthattheyearbefore,artsattendancewentdownto2009levels.Sotalktomemoreaboutthisissueofnothavingenoughofanaudience.

Whatdoyouthinkisgoingonhere?

Ong:Ithinkthatit’sdowntotherealitythataudiencesinSingaporedon'twanttopayforthearts.Ifit'sfree,theywillgo.Youareflyingthesepeoplein fromBrazilandhenceyouhavetosupportthetrooptocometoSingapore,butthere'stheusualgripingthatticketsaretooexpensive.Butit'struethat performingartsitisaveryintensiveartform,becauseit'sa“live”performance.Youcan'tjustshowavideoofadance,youactuallyhaveawhole companyofdancers.Let'ssay,twelveorfifteendancersonstage,andeverybodyhastobesupported.AndIthinkthatwhenwesay“noaudience”,I

thinkthereisanaudienceoutthere,buttheyexpectittobefree.Andthisisunfortunate,becauseyoucannotsupportacompanyof20,30people,

whichistheaveragesizewhenyouthinkofalargescalework.Countingdesigners,aproductionteam,it'sabouttwenty,thirtysalariesthatyouhaveto

payfortwomonthsofahumanindividuals'life.Twomonthsofsalary.Soifyouaddallthatup,it'sveryeasilyS$400,000.Sowhoisgoingtopayforthis

S$400,000?Agrantwillcover25percent.Sointheend,Ithinkthatmostoftheartsgroupsendupdoingbreadandbutterstufftobeabletoafford

theirexistenceasartists.

Bharati:WhydoyouthinkSingaporeansdon’twanttopaytoenjoythearts?

Ong:NowtheGovernmentissaying,theartsisimportant,etc,etc.Butit’salreadybeensetthatinlifeyoushoulddothesethings,andartisimportant

whenyoucanaffordit.Ibelievethatthissocietyisstillverytop­down.Andifthegovernmenttrulyputstheirmoneywheretheirmouthis,Ithinkthat

somethingwillhappen.Like,forexample,thiswholemovementnow,this"GotToMove"campaign,right?Wheresuddenly,'top­down',theNationalArts

Councilhasdecidedthateverybody'sgottomove,andwe'veall'gottodance’.Andso,suddenly,contemporarydancehasbecomethelanguageofthe

day.AndIfeelthatwillreallychangethescene,butforafewyears.Itthendependsonthefancyofthegovernment,andtheywillchangeagain,and

soonitwillbesomethingelse.

Bharati:Butisn’titalsoabouttheinternationalaudience?

Ong:Yeah,butIthinkthat'schanged,becauseinaway,IfeelthatthegovernmentislessconcernedaboutprovingthatSingaporeisaglobalcity.Right

now,artsis“instrumentalised”inSingapore.It's“instrumentalised”inthesensethat,okay,whatisthevalueofarts.“RenaissanceCity”wasatatime

whenSingaporewasthinkingaboutpushingtheartsouttoprojectSingaporeasaglobalcity.Andveryrecently,thatspeak­thatlanguageorthat

speak­changedbecausetherewasapapertosaythatinSingapore,wehavealotofforeignersrightnow­populationgrowthhasexploded­sothe

artshavetobeusedforbondingpurposes.So,therefore,youcanseethattheartssuddenlybecameinstrumentalisedtodevelopcommunity,andfor

meit'snevergoingtochangeifthegovernmentcontinuestoinstrumentalisethearts,andnotallowtheartstoexistforitself.

IfyoulookatacountrylikeIndonesia,theaverageIndonesianwouldbesaidtobepoor.Yetthewaytheyfeelaboutart­artbeingapartoffestivity,art

beingapartofritual,artbeingapartofexpressingyourself,howyoudress,howyoubeautifyyourhome­likeinBali.Artissoevidentineverydaylife,

andIfeelthatthisisnotthecaseinSingapore.

InSingapore,theartsisseentobesomethingwhichisexternaltoeverydaylife.WhatIsaidearlier­usingtheartstobondpeople­isthebigthing.I

findthatquiteinsidiousinSingapore,thatbasicallythereisnoartifartisnotuseful.Iftheartisnotuseful,theywillnotsupportit.Theywillthenjustsay

thatwell,youknow,doitonyourown,youknow.Findthesupportfromthepublic,yourpublic,whocomesforyourshows.

Bharati:Butthatsoundsfair–theGovernmentsupports,withtaxpayers’money,worksthatfulfillnationalgoals,andartistsperhapsneedtofindother

waysofgettingsupportforworksthatareartsforarts’sake.Ifyoulookatartistsinothercountries,theyhavetoworkhardforcorporatefundingand

thingslikethataswell.

Ong:Andrightnow,wearealsoworkinghardforcorporatefunding,butit’sjustthatit'sveryclearinSingaporethatifit'snottop­down,nothing'sgoing

tomove,becauseit'sbecomeendemicinthissociety,SoIdofeellikethateverybodyisworkingtheirbuttsofftoactuallymaintaintheircompanyfor

let'ssay,fourshows.They'redoingticketsales,they'regoingoutforsponsorship,andI'mverysurethatmostcompaniestrytospendwhattheycan

affordtospend.ButIfeelthatwearerunningonatrack,andbasically,thespeedofthetreadmillisincreasing,butwe'rejustwearingourselvesdown.

Bharati:Soifitwereuptoyou,howwouldyoudoit–enableSingaporeansandcorporatesponsorstoo,toseethevalueofartsforarts’sakeandto

supportit?

Ong:Thereisnowayinwhichthesystemcanchangeiftheeconomyisstackedagainstit.Itendtobequitepessimistic.Ithinkthatweareall

pretendingthatanartsscenecanexistinSingaporewhenitdoesn't–whenthere'snoviability.

Bharati:Sowhatwouldyousuggestthen?Tearitalldown?MakeSingaporeanartistsgooverseasandpractice?

Ong:No,no,no­firstofall,Ibelievethatyoucanmakeartwithverylittlemoneyifthereisadesire.ButthereisverylittledesireinSingapore.So,

wheneverIhearanartistsaying,“wellifIgetthisgrant,I'lldoit”.Formethat’snotatruepassion,it'snotatruedesire.I'mcompletelywiththisbelief

thatSingaporeanshavenodesireandwearereallymachinesworking.Andwearewoundupinacertainway.Ithinkforexample,theartsinSingapore

hasahardtimebecausepeoplewanttojustseetheartsassomewheretorelax.Butitcannotbe.Theartsismeanttobeprovocative,theartsistalking

aboutissuesinsociety.

Bharati:Soifyouhadtodoitonyourown,tocreateadesireinpeopletocreatetheirownart,tocreateadesireinpeopletowanttobeprovokedby

art,howwouldyoudoitatthisstage?

Ong:Ithinkthatyoureallyhavetobeginwithinstallingacurriculumofimagination.Notjustacurriculumofrightorwrong.Ifeelthatthat'svery

important,becauseIremembermyselfasachildin1971volunteeringtododramaclub.WhenIputupmyhandandjoinedthedramaclub,Iwasn't

thinkingof“oh,Ineedtogetagradeforthis”.Whileinlateryears,ECAbegan,andyouneededtohavecertainpoints,andthenthiswouldhelpyouto

gointothisschool,orthatschooloruniversity.Ithinkthatit'sreallyaboutdesire,whichyoudon'tsenseasachild.SoIdobelievethatitreallybeginsin

theschool,andIthinkthatitbeginsinamorebasicwaythanjusthavingassemblyplays.It'snotaboutassemblyplays.It'sabouthavingacurriculum

whichreallyallowsustoexpressourselves.Sothat'soneway.SoIwoulddefinitelystartinaschool.Icamefromafamilythatdidnotseetheartsas

veryimportant.Therewasnoartistinthefamilybeforebutitwasreallycompletelyinculcatedfromschool.

Bharati:Andthatwouldmorelikelyorganicallycreateanenvironmentwhereartisn'tinstrumentalised,andbecomesmoreappreciatedforitsown

sake?

Ong:IdofeelthattheGovernment,asitisrightnow,isveryconcernedaboutusingeverythingtheycantocontinuetostayasthemainpartyof

Singapore.Andtherefore

justfeelthatit'sakindofawayofdefendingthefortress,thatthere'snotmuchtruthintheideaofhavingtheartsinsociety,becauseit'sjustawayto

keeptheelite“happy”.It'saplaypenwhereyouplayinacorneroftheroom.

I'msuspicious.I'msuspiciouswhentheysay"Oh,let'shavethis,let'shavemorecreativity",whataretheysayingactually?I

Bharati:You'vesaidalotofthingsaboutcivilservantsovertheyears.Infact,inaninterviewpublishedontheInternationalFestivalofArtsblog,you

actuallymentionedthatinyourjobasfestivaldirector,yourealisedthatalotofgovernmentandcivilservantsdon'tbelieveinthearts,eventhough

they'reworkinginthisfield,andtheydon'tseemtolovethearts.Butyoustillhavetoworkwiththesecivilservants.Sohowdoyoureconcilethetwo?

Thewayyoufeelaboutthemandwhattheythink,yethavingtoworkwiththemtobringtheartstothepeople?

Ong:Ithinkthatthere'salotoffearinthiscountry.IrememberdirectingaplaybyTanTarnHow,itwascalled“FearofWriting”,whereafearstartsto

control,ortogovernhowyouact.AndIthinkthatthereisafearoffailure,definitely,andthere'safearthatit'llbetoorisque,there'llbeafearthatyour

knucklesarerapped,andsoinaway,Ithinkthatthecivilservantsplayvery,verycarefully.

Andtheonlywayofworkingwithcivilservantsisactuallythentoexpandtheboundaries,expandtheborders.SoIthinkthatthismoveofhavingthe

festivalbeingrunbyanartist,Ithinkthisisonewayinwhichyoucanactuallymovethebordersabitmore.WhenIwasinvitedtocomebackfromNew

Yorktorunthefestival,Ithinkthatcentralinmyheadwasthatsomebodysaidtome“Well,artistsarealwayscomplainingthatit'snotworking,sodo

somethingaboutit.Comebackandrunthefestival.”SoIthinkthat'ssomethingquiteimportant­thatyoudohavetogetyourhandsdirtyandactually

trytoreconstructandtrytoreclaimsomeofthatspace.

Bharati:Whatfearsdoyouthinkaregoverningcivilservantsthathavefilteredintothissceneaswell?

Ong:Ithinkthatyoucanseehowcivilservantsarejustvery,veryafraidthatwhatevertheydowilltiltthebalance.Sotheytrytomaintaintheboat,

right?IthinkitwasverytellingthatwhentheFestivalwasrunbycivilservantsbefore,theFestivaldidn'thavetogothroughcensorship.Butassoonas

theFestivalbecameindependent,thefirstyeartheyforgotaboutus.Butthenthesecondyear,whichwasthisFestival,inDecemberlastyear,wewere

toldthatwe'dhavetogothroughthecensorshipmechanism.Wehavetoapplyforpermits,etc,etc.

Bharati:WhydoyoustillcontinuetoworkinSingaporewhenyouaresoagainsttheconditionshere?

Ong:BecauseIthinkthatwhatyouhavetodoistrytotransformtheparadigm,unlessyousay“okay,Idon'twanttobeSingaporean.Idon'tneedtobe

here,Idon'twanttobehere,Ileave.”ButIthinkthatyouhavetochallengetheseborders.Youhavetotakeonthesemantlestothentrytotransform

thewayofthinking.Ithinkthatit'simportanttobebothinsideandoutsideofthesystem.Idofeellikethatthisgovernmenthascreatedapeoplewho

wouldcensorotherpeople,youknow.Ratherthantobelievethatindemocracy,everybodymustbefree.Soyouknow,sometimesyoucanseethatin

Facebook­howwe,asSingaporeansactuallytrytocensorothersinFacebookifsomeonedisagreeswithus.AndIthinkthatit'sveryimportanttoleta

disagreementoccur,andnottobeafraidofthat.

Bharati:Butthishappenseverywhere,notjustinSingapore,therewillbesomepeoplewhowillcondemnanotherpersons’viewpoint.

Ong:Ifeelthatpeoplearelikekids,squabblingoversomething,andratherthanjustreasoningthingsout,inaveryargumentativeway,inaverysound

way.It'snotabout“you'rerightorI'mwrong”,butlet'sargueaboutit.AndIthinkthat'ssomethingwhichSingaporeansarenotreallyabletodo,because

theyaresousedtobeingtoldthat"thisisblack,orthisiswhite;thisisallowed,thisisnotallowed."Inaway,it'scomplementaryinthesensethatthe

Governmentdoesnottrustthepublic,becausealsothepublichasbeenmolly­coddled.Nowadays,IthinkeveniftheGovernmentstepsback,the

censorshipsystemwillkickintoplace.Becauseyouwouldhavethereligiousright,sayingcertainthings,let'ssay,aboutsinglemothers.

Immediately,therewillbeawaveagainstsinglemothers.AndIthinkthatthisisveryclearformenow,thatevenwhenthegovernmentstepsback,the

censorshipmechanismwouldworkinSingapore.Becauseweareallsousedtousingcensorshipasawaytonipdissent,evenasaSingaporeans.If

somebodydisagreeswithus,wewouldtrytomakesurethatdisagreementdoesnotgointothepublicspace.SoIthinkthatSingaporeanshavereally

beencreatedbythePAP,andunfortunately,becausetherewasamono­party,foraverylongtime,thisisawayinwhichwe'vegrownup.

Bharati:Yousaidweshouldn’tbeafraidofdisagreement.

Ong:Yes,yes.Andthechaos,andalsotheuncertainty,andjusttobelievethatgoodsensewillprevail.

Bharati:Whyareyousooptimisticthatgoodsensewillprevail?Goodsensemaynotprevail.

Ong:Ithinkthatwecannot,wecannotensurethatourchildisforeversafe.Weneedtoletthechildgrowup.Weneedtoletthechildgothrough

whateverneedstohappen,tofall,tocollapse.AndIthinkthatthisover­protectivenessisabigproblem.Ifwecontinuetocensorallthesethingsfrom

happening,we'regoingtobecomealobotomisedsociety.Weshouldnotbeginfromdistrust,butshouldbelievethattheseareoptionstoabetter

Singaporeandtoallowtheseoptionstoplayout.Everybodywantstogettheirway,butIthinkthatmostpeoplewouldfightforsociety,fightforcertain

rights,butatacertainpoint,goodcommonsensestepsin,becausethere'snopointgettingasociety,whichiscompletelyravaged.ButIdon'tthinkthat

weshouldbeafraidofdisagreement.

Bharati:WhodoyouthinkshouldbeinchargeofgrowingtheartsinSingapore?Ifnotcivilservants,whoshouldbespearheadingthis,orhowshould

thatdynamicbebalancedinordertocreatethebestpossibleenvironment?

Ong:Ithinkthattheartsshouldbespearheadedbytheartists.Justlike,forexample,youwouldneverinyourrightsenseofmindsaythatwell,the

medicalprofessionshouldberunbysomeonewho'snotadoctor.Sowhatmakestheartsprofessionanydifferent?

Bharati:Butofcourseyou'llstillneedtheGovernmenttostepin.Governmentgrantsareamajorpartofallthisaswell,right?

Ong:Yesofcourse,butthingisthatthereisadifferencebetweenfundingandbetween­

Bharati:Interferingincontent.

Ong:Yes,Ithinkthat'sveryclear.Becauseforexample,inlegalsystems,thereareadministrators,therearecivilservants.They'retheretoprovidethe

support.Ithinkthenaturaldefinitionofthecivilserviceisthattheyaremeanttobeaneutralservicethatprovidesthesupportforpoliticians,butthey

areactuallywithoutanypoliticalaffinity.Sointhesameway,Ithinkthecivilservicewhoaresupportingtheartssceneshouldreallybepeoplewhoare

supportingtheartsscene,andnotmakingartsdecisions.

Bharati:Let'stalkaboutself­censorship.Doyourememberatimewhenyouhadtodoit,whenitfeltparticularlybad?

Ong:In2014,whenthefestivalfirstbegan,weinvitedZaneleMuholiwhoisanLGBTadvocatefromSouthAfrica,andweweretoldbytheNationalArts

Council,“Well,youshouldmakesurethattheexhibitiondoesn'tgooverboard."

Ifeltquitenegativeaboutmyjob,becauseIhadtoensure,withZanele,thatwhateverispossiblyinflammatoryshouldnotbestatedwithwords,thatwe

shouldjustletthephotographsspeak,andthatwasthekindofartisticdecisionthatIhadtomake,thatwewon'tcensor.We'llletthephotographs

speak,butlet'slookatthewalltext,andbecarefulwithwhatyouaresayinginthewalltext.Ifeltquiteshittyaboutthat,thatasanartist,Ihadtodothat

toanotherartist.Andveryoften,IthinkthatI'membarrassedinfrontofinternationalartists,whenwetalkaboutSingapore,becauseitsoundsvery

draconian,anditsoundshorrible.Sometimes,Iwouldmeetotherartistsandtheywillsaythat,"Well,wecan'tperformthisinSingapore,because

there'snudityinit."

Inmyroleasamediator,Iwouldhavetosaythat,“No,IthinkthatyouhavetocometoSingapore.AndIdon'tthinkthatnuditybyitself,isresultingin

censorshipanymore.”Ithinkit'sreallyabouttakingtherisk,andreallyaboutpushingtheboundary,becauseIbelievethatwecareabouttheaudience.

Obviously,theartistsaretherebecausethey'reinvolvedinengagingtheaudienceinsomeway.Wecareabouthavingadialoguewithindividuals,but

wearenotpoliticians.

Bharati:Thethingaboutcensorshipisthatoften,theauthoritiesusethisasthejustification:"Singaporesocietyisnotreadyforthisyet.It’sagainstour

values."Whatgoesthroughyourmindwhenyouhearthis?

Ong:Ithinkthatit'sjustawayofcontrol,right?It'saformofcontrolthat'sbecomeverystronginneo­liberalsocietiesinthelasttwodecades,Iwould

say,since9/11.Surveillancehassteppedup,andit'sjustifiedonthebasisofsafety,offightingterrorism,andIthinkinthesamewaythatcensorshipis

justified.Justifiedonthebasisthatit'sforthegoodofsociety.

Theartsisanaturalombudsmanforsociety,wherethesevapours,dissentingvoices,areallowedtojustbeaired.IfSingaporeissobottledup,Ifeel

there'snospacetoairanydissent,andwiththat,Idon'tthinktheartshavethespacetobesomethingelseapartfromentertainment.IbelievethatI've

givenmylifetoworthycause,andIdon'tthinkthatIwouldliketogivemylifetojustbeanentertainer.Ididn'tentertheartstobeanentertainer,

becauseIcanjustbeanentertainerwithoutbeinganartist.

Bharati:Youalludedtothisearlieraswell.Whyshouldn’titbeentertainingandrelaxingattimestoo?Youhavebeenaccusedinthepastof

intellectualisingeverything.Whataboutaccessibility?

Ong:Ithinkthatthereisaspaceforallkindsofarts,butIbelievethatweshouldencouragetheartstobeacriticalspace.Bydressingtheartsupas

icing,assweeticingontopofsociety­that'snothowIthinktheartsshouldbesupported.IthinkthatsomeofthestatementsI'veheard,wherethe

grantsschemeisnowusedtocensortheartsgroups,wheresometimesit'sassimpleas,"Oh,youshouldnotbitethehandthatfeedsyou."Ithinkthat

that'snonsensebecausetome,youshouldnotspeaklikethisasacivilservice,becausethisishowtheartsis.

Bharati:Don'tyouthinktheauthoritieshaveapointwhentheyimplyyoushouldn’tbitethehandthatfeedsyou?WhyshouldaGovernmentagency

givemoneyandsupporttosomethingthatisagainstwhattheGovernmentbelievesarenationalvalues?

Ong:Becauseit'snottheirmoney.It'sourmoney.

Bharati:Taxpayers’money.

Ong:Yes.IthinkthatwehavetobeawarethatthisisnotNAC'smoney.IfNACwasgivingtheirmoney,thenIbelievethatweshouldnottakethe

money.

Bharati:Andiftheysay,iftheagenciesinsist,"ThemajorityofSingaporeansarenotreadyforthis."Whyshouldtheyusetaxpayers'moneytofund

somethingthattheyfeelthemajorityofSingaporeansarenotreadyfor?That’stheirargument.

Ong:That’sthevoiceofGovernment,orthecivilservicesayingthatSingaporeansarenotready.HavewehadthereferendumaboutSingaporeansnot

beingready?Andactually,theclosestwecametoareferendumwas377A,wheretherewasvoting,anditshowedthattherewereequal,broadlyequal

numbers.Soit'snotrighttosaythatSingaporeansarenotready,becauseifSingaporeanswerenotready,youwouldhave,let'ssay,maybeavoteof

75percentto25percent.

Bharati:Thiswasanonlinepoll?

Ong:Yeah,thiswasanonlinepollof377A.

Bharati:You'vementioned377Aseveraltimes,LGBTissues.Howdoesitfeeltobe“you”inSingapore?Yoursexualorientation.

Ong:Ibelievethatoursexualorientationisprivate,andIbelievethatthereisnoneedforcensorshipbecauseanykindofillegalactwillbecaughtby

othersectionsofthePenalCode.Inthesameway,Ibelieveverymuchthatifyourepealed377A,therewillbenoobsceneactinpublic,becausethere

areothersortsoflawwhichwillcatchthiskindofobsceneact.

Bharati:Inpublic.

Ong:Inpublic.Ibelievethatyourlife,yourdesires,yoursexualorientationisreallyaprivateconcern.Bothsidesshouldairtheirbeliefs,weshouldn't

censortheirreligiousright,fromdoingwhattheywanttodo,andweshouldn'tcensorLGBTindividualsfromdoingwhattheywanttodo.“Inthepublic

interest”,whichisaconstantphrase,whichappearsthroughouttheconstitution.

Everythingispossible,unlessit'sagainstpublicinterest.Butwho'sthepublic?IthinkthatSingapore,thegovernmenthastowakeuptothefactthat

Singaporehasmanypublics.It'snotonepublic.Howdoyouhonourthedifferentpublics?

Bharati:Onecouldsaythatthe“majoritypublic”wins.

Ong:Yes,majoritywins,butIthinkthattheminorityisalsoveryimportant.Idon'tthinkthatwewanttobecomethatsortofsocietywhereeverythingis

decidedbythemajority.Basicallyitwillbecome­whichactuallydoesoccur­let'ssayinFacebook.Sometimespeoplesaysomethinglike,"ifyoudon't

likeit,thenyoushouldleave."Ithinkthat'sareallyoutrageousstatement,butatthesametimeIfeellike,well,thispersonwhosaysthisonFacebookis

alsoexpressinghisorheropinion.Ithinkthatthiswholethinghastobemoreseriouslycritiqued.Assoonasthere'sonepublicforsomething,there's

alsoapublicagainstsomething.

Bharati:Sotheminorityopinionsneedtoberespectedtoo.

Ong:Yes,correct,andthat'stherole,Ithink,oftheGovernment,buttheGovernmentrightnowisonlyconcernedaboutvotes.

Bharati:Isn’tthatnaturalthough?Anypoliticalpartywouldbe,anypoliticalestablishmentwouldbe.Somemightsayit’scivilsociety’sjobandthe

artists’jobtofightforotherrights.It’sparforthecourse.

Ong:Yes,Imean,Ifeellikeartistsarenotnecessarilypeopleinvolvedincivilaction,youknow,incivicsociety.Ithinkartistsareexpressingcertain

views,andIthinkthatsometimespeoplewouldsaythat,"Whoareyoutosaythesethings?Whoareyoutohavethisplatform?Justbecauseyouare

anartist,youhavethisplatform."AndIthinkthatthat'skindofridiculous,becauseyoucanbeanybody,andyoucanfindyourplatform.Youcanfind

yourplatforminforumletters,oryoucanfindyourplatforminFacebook.

Inmypositionasafestivaldirector,IthinkthatI'vestoodupagainstcensorship,I'vesaidwhatI'vehadtosaypublicly,becausethereisan accountabilitytothepublic,soifwe'regettingourpermitstwodaysbeforeashow,Ithinkthepublichastobeawarethat,actually,it'sasituationwhere

theirrightsasaconsumerareactuallycompletelygovernedbytheMDA,who'sgivingoutapermit,and2daysbeforeaperformance,they'llsaythat,

"Thisworkcannotbeperformed."Ithinkthatwehavetobeverymuchmoreaware,asaFestival,ofwhatourresponsibilityistothepublic.

Bharati:Youexpresssomedoubtastowhether,whentheGovernmentagenciessays,"Thepublicisn'treadyforthis",whetherthatisindeeda

reflectionoftruepublicsentiment.Howdoyouyourselfthencalibratewhatwouldbeofservicetothepublic,andinthepublicinterest?

Ong:Ithinkthatthewaytocalibrate,whichI'veusedasaFestivalDirector,isnottoassumethatthepublicisnotready.Mymainroleisactuallytoput

workouttherewhichwouldchallengethepublic,ratherthanbyfirstsayingthatthepublic'snotready,andhenceI'vemovedthistotheside,Idon't

producethis,orIdon'tpresentthat.Ithinkthatveryoften,asadecision­maker,youhavetoworkthroughtrialanderror.Ithinkthatyoushouldnever

assumethatyouknowwhattheaudiencewants,becauseyoudon'tknowwhattheaudiencewants,because,inaway,theaudienceisconstantly

changing.Therearenewaudiences,therearemaybeoldaudiencesthatwouldcomebackinsupportofsomething.

Bharati:Let'stalkaboutsomethingthatyoumentionedearlier­TanTarnHow's“FearofWriting”.Hehadsaidthatthisplayisaboutthecomplacencyof

theaverageSingaporean,oftheatreaudiencesandpractitioners,becausethereisnodanger,norealchange,enactedbyourworks.However,whichof

yourworks,doyouthink,hasactuallyenactedsomechange?

Ong:Ithinkinputtingup“FearofWriting”,forexample,thatenactedsomechange.Ithinkthattheaudiencewas,forthefirsttime,abletolookatsome

ofthelawsthataffectedourexistenceasanaudience,thatwecanbearrestedbyacensorshipofficialwithoutawarrantofarrest.Ithinkthatmost

Singaporeanswerequiteshockedbywhatwasunveiledinthepiece,becauseyoujusttakeitasanassumptionthatyouaresafeasanaudience,but

actually,you'reneversafe.

Theonlywaywecanmakesomethingsafeisifweallbecomeresponsibleforourownactions,andnotfollowsomebodyelse'slineofresponsibility.But

Idon'twanttobelievethattheartsisaboutanindividualpieceofwork.Ithinkthatit'saboutcontinuedsurvivabilityandsustainability.

Iftheartscontinuedtoexist,thenIthinkthatthere'savoice,whichisspeakingcritically,objectivelyorsubjectivity.Therearemanydifferentsortsof

arts,butIthinkthatthisfearoftheartsbeingsomethingthatwouldopenthefloodgates,it'snotreallytrue.

Bharati:Shouldn'titalsobeaboutopeningthefloodgates,insomesense.

Ong:Yes,Ithinkso,butIthink–

Bharati:Byenactingsomesortofchange?

Ong:No,Ithinkthattheartshasaroletoplayinrelationtoopeningupotherpossibilitiestodifferentmembersoftheaudience.Ithinkthatit'salso

about,inaway,thehumanistvalueofart.Thatwhenyouarehearingabout,let'ssay,amarginalcharacter'straumaorturmoil,youbegintounderstand

howtheseindividualslivetheirlives.There'savaliditytothisfeelingand,justbecauseyoudisagreewithher,doesitmeanthatsheshouldbe

censored?Forme,theatreisaspacewherewehearotheropinions,andthat'swhytheatreissoimportant,becauseinthesespaces,whereyouhear

otheropinions,thenyoubegintoactuallyacceptthatthereareotheropinions,andnotjustoneopinion.

Bharati:Towhatextentdoyoufeeltheauthoritiescanaffordtoreleasemoreinformationonthedeliberationsthatgoonbehindcertaincontroversial

decisionstheymakeintermsofcensorship?

Ong:Iwouldliketohavemoretransparency,definitely.Forme,it'snotsomuchaboutgivingthedissentingvoicewhattheywant,butIthinkthatwe

havetoseehowthesedecisionsarebeingmade.Thereisalwaysafearaboutthis,becauseassoonasyouaretransparent,youcanbecritiqued.I

thinkthatwhathappensisthat,veryoften,decisionsaremadeinanopaqueway,sothatyoucannotbecritiqued.

Bharati:Withintheconstraintsoftoday’sSingaporeandhowyousaysocietyhasbeen“constructed”,howdoyouhopetousetheartstoenactchange

inthisregard?

Ong:Ithinkthatinthenextyearofthefestival,wehavetoputthetestonartitself.Whatiftheartisnotuseful?Thatmeansthatifartisforart'ssake,if

artisforbeauty,orifartisforminorityinterest,canwestillsupportart?Inthelargersenseoftheword,whatifwelettheartist’strajectory,orindividual's

trajectorybecomeimportant.That'sthestakethatweareat,thatmeansthatwhatiftheartisnotreflectingourhistory,whatiftheartisnotsocial­

political,whatiftheartisaboutanindulgentindividual'sperspective?Isthatstillimportant?Ithinkthat'sreallytheburdenthattheArtsFestivalhasto

takeoninitsnextfewyears,whichisthatdowesupportanindividual'strajectory,eventhoughthisindividual'strajectoryisnotusefulforsociety.

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