What's In My Portfolio: Ong Keng Sen

Photography by Chino Sardea
27 Jul 2017

Ong Keng Sen is a veteran theatre practitioner and Founding and Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA)

One of the things I love about my job is I get to commission both young and interesting artists — whether they’re emerging or mid-career — locally and internationally. This is very pleasurable for me because it means that I can initiate and give opportunities to create new art.

As for my role at SIFA, my interests, as well as the Festival’s interests, are quite specific. We have a group of artists that we are interested in and it narrows down the scope: They need to be innovative and propose new ideas and formats. With these parameters, we have quite a specific group of artists to chase and engage in order to build up trust and confidence in SIFA.

One of the interesting moments for SIFA this year was when I commissioned graphic novelist Sonny Liew. When I met him, I said, “I’m interested in creating new work with you. At SIFA, we are very interdisciplinary. We like to commission artists from different backgrounds, to make great performances.”

"I believe that this is what SIFA will probably be remembered by: We created ownership and not just a calendar of art shows." - Ong Keng Sen

It was interesting poring through his drawings. While doing so, I gave him some advice and said: “If you want to do something, I don’t think that it should be The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.” He asked me why I thought so and I said, “You should keep it for a film. You should develop a new narrative for the stage.” This is part of my belief that the stage is really an experimenting space. It is a space where you create new processes. The stage is something for new encounters, exciting dynamism, and to plant the seeds. And then, it can subsequently be used to create a film.

It is now my last year with SIFA and I believe we’ve had a very good cycle for four years and that we were able to close the loop. We gave a promise in the first year to engage more Singaporeans and to create shared ownership for the arts and that’s why we created a lot of public programs this year where the audience is not just a spectator, but a participant as well. I believe that this is what SIFA will probably be remembered by: We created ownership and not just a calendar of art shows.


The Singapore International Festival of Arts will be running until 9 September. For more information, visit