"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Friday, December 01, 2017

Ong Keng Sen on the Arts in Singapore

On the naval gazing insularity of the arts in Singapore:

Interview: Artistic Director Ong Keng Sen

"I think a lot of institutions, festivals, and venues here are ghettoising themselves by looking at only Singapore, Southeast Asia and Asia. This makes no sense to me. One cannot consider Asia without looking at America and Europe and other parts of the world. For example, what’s happening in Tokyo is as much affected by what is happening with ISIS, and what’s happening in Europe or New York with the rise of populism and conservatism worldwide. For me, these parts of the world don’t just function as a region. The regions are interconnected; we have to see them in a larger context. Therefore I feel that this kind of perception that we must program Southeast Asian or Asian arts is a very misguided way of thinking – you have stunted visions of Asia if you don’t consider Asia or Southeast Asia as part of the world...

I actually get comments from American and European artists that “Singapore is not interested in us, they are only interested in Asia & Southeast Asian artists”...

Our theatre writers are often not writing on things that are relatable outside of Singapore. Nobody here is writing about Syria, for example. Nobody is writing about migration in Europe or the search for home. Our topics here are very, very small – they are looking at traffic rage, that kind of issue!...

Singaporean artists are perhaps looking at foreign workers in Singapore in a very localised manner. However it is not just about foreign workers in Singapore but also about migration in the world. Migration is a world theme right now, and this kind of universality is not very prevalent in Singapore theatre and arts. I feel we are closed off, rather insular, looking only at Singaporean issues and often only in a Singaporean context...

Generally our worldviews are not very big when we are in Singapore. Let’s take for example SG50 – it’s Singapore’s golden jubilee. But what does this 50th birthday mean internationally in the world? Is it about post-colonialism? Is it about changing the thinking about the periphery and the centre?? This idea of just celebrating your birthday can be petty in the larger sense of the world. I feel like we have to connect our conversations with the world and not just what’s happening here...

What I’ve heard many times about Singaporean films. “A lot of filmmakers here have the techniques to make the film, but they have no stories to tell.” Many of our filmmakers have the Hollywood techniques to make a glossy product. The challenge that faces Singaporean artists and Singaporean audiences (since they are directly related) is that the product looks ok, even good. But when you poke inside, there is no content...

More and more Singaporean individuals are moving away or staying away. You can see that in the recent controversy with Koh Jee Leong, a Singaporean poet who doesn’t want National Arts Council funding. He was listed in FT as one of the top poets to watch. He moved away.

Singapore is set up such that it is catering to a type of individual who wants to have a zone of comfort, a zone of convenience, where you make a lot of money, and then you go away and spend that money enjoying yourselves on holidays around the world. So it caters to a group of people. But there are many people who have things to say who have left, because there is little compatibility with what they are experiencing here... Perhaps stayers are the people who stay here who want a certain lifestyle, not a very engaged lifestyle. Because if you want to be engaged, you’d run into borders where you’d be regulated, and you can’t say the things you want to say, so people who want to say things leave. But they are the ones who have quality and desire quality. So what you have left are the stayers who have already quit from engaging with life socio-politically...

As I speak with the younger generation, I am troubled that more and more young people want to leave... in the long term you get people staying who would be perhaps – this is a terrible way of putting it – quite mediocre. That’s why I am questioning this thinking that if you don’t like it, then leave. Then the best people will go; apart from the committed individuals who are working hard here, but this group is very small...

The difference between Finnish and Singaporean history – Singapore is so afraid of alternative histories that are not the published history. Finnish history is looking for alternatives as a kind of diversity. In Singapore, you are told very consciously that you should not be creating alternative histories in the year of SG50. It means that there is a fear that you are generating different ways of thinking, individual ways of thinking. It’s a very real limitation. You are not going to have a dynamism for the future where there is push and pull between different realities and different viewpoints...

The scene here is very much dominated by institutions. If we look at ST’s Life Power List 2015, many are running a festival or a museum. They are all National Big Money. Very few individual voices, very few individual artists, very few individual entrepreneurs...

I have international friends who ask me why are artists in Singapore afraid of losing state funding? And why should the state or the government be involved? Sadly, it’s actually a belief in Singapore that you can’t do anything without the government, it’s so centralised. You see that when you go for sponsorship. The corporate sponsors are only focused on you when the government has said let’s focus on art this year. The endorsement by the government is important even for private corporate sponsorship...

Individuals are going to choose countries where there is quality of life. Quality of life includes dynamic expression, the ability to express yourself fearlessly, and not just a matter of affording a car and a house. Many people in New York can’t afford a car and a house, but they still live there, very fulfilled...

You can see the brain drain, because talent goes to the places where they are free. Talent will not stay where they are controlled. The talents know they have talent. They know they can go anywhere in the world. And if Singapore continues to be very controlled, talent would all seep out."
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