Ong Keng Sen

Singapore Infopedia

by Nureza Ahmad


Ong Keng Sen (b. 1964, Singapore–), the critically acclaimed artistic director of TheatreWorks, a local theatre company, is best known for his intercultural Shakespeare-inspired trilogy of works - LearDesdemona, and Search: Hamlet.He was the artistic director of an international arts festival, In-Transit, held at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in 2002 and 2003.Winner of the Young Artist Award in 1993, the Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture) in 2000 and the Cultural Medallion (Theatre) in 2003, Ong is a trailblazer in the development of Singaporean and Asian theatre,and has achieved international fame with his works that have been staged in Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States.4  

Early life
Born to immigrant parents from Xiamen, southern China, Ong is the youngest of six children. His siblings are all professionals, among whom is Ong Keng Yong, who was Secretary-General of ASEAN from 1 Jan 2003 to 31 Dec 2007.5 As a child, Ong and his siblings used to act out Cantonese soap operas. Growing up, he communicated with his parents in Chinese dialect, but conceptualised in English.6 That was when he first had the feeling of being both “inside and outside” of a culture. He felt that his parents were from a world that he could never totally penetrate.7 This in turn, shaped his art-making and the idea that life has multiple realities.8

Ong was educated at Anglo Chinese School (ACS) where he became an active member of the ACS Literary, Drama and Debating Society.9 The society produced some of Singapore's theatre luminaries, including, actor-brothers Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu, director Ivan Heng, and actors Lim Yu Beng, Adrian Pang, and Glen Goei.10

Ong's interest in theatre grew when he became a member of The Stage Club, a non-profit theatre group established in 1945, and a pioneer of English language theatre in Singapore.11 Although Ong went on to study law at the National University of Singapore, his interest in drama did not diminish. He ran the student playhouse and campaigned for the use of theatrical techniques to prepare aspiring lawyers for the courtroom.12 In 1986, Ong attended a workshop by the Practice Performing Arts School.13

Despite qualifying as a lawyer, Ong turned down a job offer at the distinguished law firm Lee & Lee. Instead, he immersed himself in the theatre scene in Singapore, taking on the post of artistic director of theatre group TheatreWorks in 1988.14 From 1993 to 1995, Ong pursued the Master of Arts programme in theatre at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.15

A Fulbright scholar, Ong was awarded a number of fellowships, including the Japan Foundation Fellowship and the British Council Fellowship. He is a member of the Asia-Europe Network and the New York Asian Cultural Council.16 A talented speaker, he has given talks on performance art in Asia, in other countries, such as Australia and Germany.17

On the local front, Ong was responsible for the development of playwriting through the creation of the Writers' Laboratory in 1990 to develop and nurture young playwrights, and the establishment of the Flying Circus Project in 1996. The latter stemmed from Ong's interest in the concept of interculturalism, and brought artists from different regions in Asia to work together. This culminated in the production of Lear by participants from Japan, Thailand, China and Indonesia. Ong continued with his Shakespeare-inspired plays with the production of Desdemona, featuring artists from India, Myanmar and Korea. He then went on to stage The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, involving artists from Cambodia, Japan and Singapore.18 Based on the true story of Em Theay, a master of classical royal temple dance from Cambodia,19 this production is an example of “docu-performance” – a genre created by Ong – which explores aspects of culture and social identity formation by juxtaposing historical material and personal experience of history in theatrical form.20

Notably, Ong was the first Singaporean and Asian to be commissioned by the House of World Cultures and the Festspiele Berlin to curate In-Transit, the Berlin international arts festival, in 2002 and 2003.21 He was also artist-in-residence at Tisch School of the Arts in 2002 and a commissioned artist at the Vienna Schauspielhaus in 2003, where he curated the series Myths of Memory.22 While continuing to be active in the theatres, Ong was also appointed to curate festivals, such as the National Museum of Singapore’s Night Festival in 2010.23

In 2013, he was appointed the festival director of Singapore Arts Festival (later known as Singapore International Festival of Arts) to revamp the festival; this was a position he held from 2014 to 2017.24 During his appointment, he was noted to have introduced avant-garde artists and productions and had commissioned some of the largest scale plays performed by local theatre companies.25 Realising that there was a growing gap between artists and audiences, Ong initiated “The Curators Academy” in 2018, which involved a series of workshops and events aimed at to building bridges between creators and audiences.26 

 Singapore Young Artist Award for Theatre; Fulbright Scholarship, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.27

1994: Receives grant from the Asian Cultural Council in New York.28
2000: Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture)29
2003: International Society of Performing Arts Distinguished Artist Award; Excellence for Singapore Award by Singapore Totalisator Board; Cultural Medallion (theatre).30
2007: Life! Theatre Awards for Best Director31
2010: Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize32

 Graduates in law from the National University of Singapore; becomes artistic director of TheatreWorks.33

1990: Establishes The Writers' Lab at TheatreWorks.34
1993: Pursues a year-long Master of Arts programme at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.35
1994: Graduates with a Master of Arts in Performance Studies.36
1998: Participates in Hong Kong's Journey to the East theatre festival.37
1999: Set up Arts Network Asia with donations from the Ford Foundation.38
2002, 2003: Artistic director of In-Transit, House of World Cultures, Berlin.39

2008: Appointed by the European Cultural Foundation to curate a new festival in Amsterdam in 2009; Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Edinburgh University.40
2010: Curator of National Museum of Singapore’s Night Festival.41
2014–2017: Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts.42

Selected directions
 Retrospective (Singapore); Fried Rice Paradise (Singapore); Trojan Women (Singapore).43

1992: Madame Mao's Memories (Edinburgh Festival, Scotland); Beauty World and Three Children, Japan.44
1993: Lao Jiu, in collaboration with Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore).45
1994: Lao Jiu, The Festival of Perth, Australia.46
1995: Broken Birds (Singapore)47
1996: Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival, Egypt; Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror (Singapore).48
1997: Mixed Signals (Singapore); Workhorse Afloat (Singapore); Lear in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.49
1999: Lear tours Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia.50
2000: The Silver River by David Henry Hwang (Spoleto Festival); Desdemona (Singapore).51
2001: The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields (Yale University); The Spirits Play (Singapore).52
2002: Search: Hamlet (Elsinore, Denmark); The Silver River (Lincoln Arts Centre, New York).53
2003: The Global Soul – the Buddha project (Singapore); Open Secret (Vienna); Spiegelgrund (Vienna); The Bibliotheque of Cultural Decontamination (Vienna);54 Lim Tzay Chuen (Singapore).55
2004: Sandakan Threnody (Singapore Arts Festival, Brisbane Festival and Melbourne Festival)56
2005: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Vienna)57
2006: Diaspora (Singapore); Geisha (Spotelo Festival).58
2007: 120 (Singapore)59
2008: Vivien and the Shadows (North Carolina, United States of America); Awaking (Singapore).60
2009: Diaspora (Edinburgh International Festival); The Good Person Of Szechuan (Austria).61
2010: Red Ballerina – A Work-In-Progress (Singapore)62
2011: Fear Of Writing (Singapore)63
2012: National Broadway Company (Singapore); Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore).64
2014: Facing Goya (Singapore International Festival of Arts)65
2015: The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers (Singapore International Festival of Arts)66
2016: Sandaime Richard (Singapore International Festival of Arts)67
2017: Trojan Women (Singapore International Festival of Arts)
2018: Tree of Codes (Spoleto Festival)68
2019: The House of Forbidden Flowers (New York)69


Nureza Ahmad

1. Ho Sheo Be, “National Awards for 8 Young Artists,” Straits Times, 10 September 1993, 9; Leong Phei Phei, “Arts & Culture,” Today, 12 January 2004, 15; Elizabeth A. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now,” Straits Times, 21 April 1998, 2; Suhaila Sulaiman, “Play It again, Sen,” Straits Times, & August 2002, 4. (From  NewspaperSG)
2. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
3. Clarissa Oon, “Art Landers,” Straits Times, 27 September 2003, 3; Hannah Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York,” Straits Times, 17 August 1993, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Leong, “Arts & Culture.” 
4. Leo Suryadinata, ed., Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 828. (Call no. RSING 959.004951 SOU)
5. “Former Secretaries-General of ASEAN,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations, accessed 10 March 2020; Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 828.
6. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
7. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 829.
8. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
9. “Ong Milestones,” Today, 15 March 2006, 49 (From NewspaperSG); Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 829.
10. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 829.
11. Koh Boon Pin, “Stage Club Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary This Year,” Straits Times, 24 February 1995, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
13. “Practice Performing Arts School at Crossroads Now,” Straits Times, 27 June 1995, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Suhaila Sulaiman, “Director Ong Goes Back to Law,” Straits Times, 3 March 2003, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Phan Ming Yen, “Singapore Theatre Takes Centre Stage in New York for New Season of Plays,” Straits Times, 28 January 1995, 11 (From NewspaperSG); Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York.” 
16. Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York”; “Ong Keng Sen,” HKW, accessed 2005; “Sandakan Threnody,” TheatreWorks, accessed 16 March 2020.
17. “Ong Keng Sen,” HKW, accessed 16 March 2020; Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
18. Suhaila Sulaiman, “Now It's Two,” Straits Times, 19 January 2002, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now”; “The Global Soul,” Theatreworks, accessed 20 March 2017.
19. Sulaiman, “Director Ong Goes Back to Law.”
20. HKW, “Ong Keng Sen.”
21. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “Singaporean Curator for Berlin Arts Fest,” Straits Times, 2 June 2002, 6; Sulaiman, “Play It again, Sen.” 
22. Sulaiman, “Play It again, Sen”; Sulaiman, “Director Ong Goes Back to Law”; TheatreWorks, “Sandakan Threnody.”
23. Natalie Koh, “Ever-Changing Night Festival,” Business Times, 16 July 2010, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Corrie Tan, “Theatre Practitioner to Lead Arts Festival,” Straits Times, 3 May 2013, 2–3. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Corrie Tan, “Arts Festival Gamble Pays Off,” Straits Times, 22 September 2015, 4–5. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Akshita Nanda, “Bridging Arts and Audiences,” Straits Times, 24 January 2018. 27. Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York.” 
28. “On Location: A Conversation with Ong Keng Sen in Singapore,” Asian Cultural Council, accessed 9 March 2020.
29. Leong, “Arts & Culture.” 
30. Clarissa Oon, “Ong Joins List of Award Legends,” Straits Times, 19 June 2003, 3; Clarissa Oon, “Art Landers,” Straits Times, 27 September 2003, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Tamara Mohananan Kuppusamy, “Glittering Nod to Thespians at Life! Theatre Awards,” Business Times, 20 March 2007. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Dylan Tan, “Ong Keng Sen Wins International Arts Prize,” Business Times, 31 July 2010, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Sulaiman, “Director Ong Goes Back to Law.”
34. “The Writers’ Lab,” TheatreWorks, accessed 16 March 2020. 
35. Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York.” 
36. Pandian, “Keng Sen to Study in New York”; Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 829.
37. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
38. Clarissa Oon, “More Money for Asian Arts,” Straits Times, 13 September 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Tatlow, “Singaporean Curator for Berlin Arts Fest.” 
40Adeline Chia et al., Feel the Power,” Straits Times, 4 December 2008, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
41Koh, “Ever-Changing Night Festival.” 
42. Tan, “Theatre Practitioner to Lead Arts Festival.” 
43. “Ong Milestones”; Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 830.
44. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
45. Hannah Pandian, “Torn Between Two Worlds,” Straits Times, 15 April 1993, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
47. Koh Boon Pin, “Out to Create Theatre with Unanswered Questions,” Straits Times, 30 May 1995, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now”; Susan Tsang, “Tune in to Ix Shen and Gang at Victoria Theatre,” Straits Times, 19 January 1997, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
49. Oon, “Ong Joins List of Award Legends”; Kaiden, “All the World's a Stage Now.”
50. “Arts and Culture Prize – Ong Keng Sen,” Fukuoka Prize, accessed 15 March 2017.
51. “Silver Team,” Straits Times, 7 February 2000, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Leong, “Arts & Culture.” 
52. Sulaiman, “Now It's Two.” 
53. Sulaiman, “Play It again, Sen.” 
54. Clarissa Oon, “Global Take On the Soul,” Straits Times, 21 June 2003, L7 (From NewspaperSG)Sulaiman, “Director Ong Goes Back to Law.”
55. Clarissa Oon, “Don’t Turn Your Back on This,” Straits Times, 1 December 2003, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo, Performance and Cosmopolitics: Cross-Cultural Transactions in Australasia (UK: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), 106.
57. Clara Chow, “Give Brecht a Break,” Straits Times, 9 July 2005, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
58. Hong Xinyi, “Culture on the Agenda,” Straits Times, 5 September 2006, 3; Ashraf Safdar, “Hooked On Keng Sen’s Kabuki,” Today, 20 May 2006, 37. (From NewspaperSG)
59. Wei-Tze Sam, “Watch the National Museum ‘Speak’ to the People,” Business Times, 31 August 2007, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Adeline Chia, “Vivien Out of the Shadows,” Straits Times, 11 August 2008, 57. (From NewspaperSG)
61. Adeline Chia, “Far and Away,” Straits Times, 17 August 2009, 46; Tara Tan, “Asian in Austria,” Straits Times, 25 September 2009, 61. (From NewspaperSG)
62. “What’s Up This Week… And the Week Ahead,” Straits Times, 23 April 2010, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
63. Cheah Ui-Hoon, “Whither Political Theatre?” Business Times, 26 August 2011, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
64. Corrie Tan, “Grand 10th Birthday Bash for Esplanade,” Straits Times, 13 October 2012, 2–3 (From NewspaperSG); Mayo Martin, “Goh Lay Kuan! Kuo Pao Kun! Salute!” Today, 19 January 2013.
65. Helmi Yusof, “Facing Goya Defies all Opera Traditions,” Business Times, 15 August 2014, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
66. Mayo Martin, “Beyond Borders,” Today, 19 September 2015, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
67. Akshita Nanda, “A Multi-Lingual Take on Shakespeare,” Straits Times, 6 September 2016.
68. “Tree of Codes: Spoleto Festival USA,” Asian Cultural Council, accessed 16 March 2020.
69. Peter Libbey, “Daniel Fish’s ‘White Noise’ Set for American Debut,” New York Times, 16 May 2019.

The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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