Ask Ong Kah Jing how he became a documentary filmmaker and he will give you either one of two reasons: wilful ignorance, or cable TV.
“When I was young, even as I binge-watched Spongebob Squarepants, I was also an avid fan of National Geographic. That was when my fascination with documentaries began. That was how I was inspired.”
Despite the seeds of interest being sown, Kah Jing had no idea how to make his dream a reality. He did not know that National Geographic had an office in Singapore and he certainly knew no one who actually made a living from documentary storytelling.
“It was something I never thought possible,” he adds, quite frankly.
Most of us would have given up and contented ourselves with watching the occasional Netflix feature. Kah Jing, however, hung onto his ambition. During his National Service, he used any spare time he had to learn all he could about the industry and started writing articles about curious subjects as practice for future documentary videos.
His chance came just four weeks after he joined the NUS Business School.
As a resident of Tembusu College, he attended a formal dinner which eventually led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, STEER (Study Trips For Engagement & EnRichment) – an NUS programme which brings students overseas so they can immerse themselves in the local society and culture.
That year, the expedition would take students on a trip across Indonesia, from Jakarta to Bali, Lombok and Komodo National Park, and open their eyes to the realities and challenges of conservation efforts in the region. More than a chance to see a part of the world less travelled, it was also the perfect setting for his very first documentary.
Kah Jing (first from left) with the Tembusu STEER expedition group in Komodo National Park
It was a trip of many firsts – the students’ first time making a documentary, and Kah Jing’s first experience as a project director. More significantly, it was also the first time that undergraduates had led a STEER expedition. In the past, it was the lecturers and professors who ran the show.
Despite the odds, 11 short months later and with the help of his teammates, The Conservation Conversation was completed. The project would be selected for both the 2016 Singapore Eco Film Festival and the KL Eco Film Festival. The next year, it would also go on to win gold at the National Youth Film Awards.
Kah Jing receiving the Gold Award on behalf of The Conservation Conversation at the National Youth Film Awards
Back in NUS, its impact was strongly felt as well. The success of the 2016 Komodo expedition promptly sparked a wave of student-planned, student-led expeditions to destinations near and far.
For Kah Jing, however, the fulfilment of his childhood dream through NUS would spark only one thing: a greater desire to tell compelling stories. It was not long before he dove head first into his second project, Trespass – a short film on the closing of the Sungei Road Thieves Market.
Today, Kah Jing runs his own studio, OKJ Works, which specialises in documentary storytelling.
Since his NUS days, he has produced no fewer than 10 films. Some were shot for corporate clients, while others grew out of his own insatiable curiosity. The subjects range from HDB astrophotography to the Young Sustainable Impact Programme in Norway, a project he took on while on the NUS Student Exchange Programme.
Kah Jing (second from left) filming a documentary of the Young Sustainable Impact Programme in Norway
Asked about his approach to filmmaking, he declares. “For me, I don’t really have a specific style or topic. All I want to do is to tell people’s stories in a way that does them justice.”
Kah Jing believes it could not have happened otherwise, without the unique opportunities and environment at NUS Business School. Although the passion for filmmaking was always inside him, his business education was the “catalyst” which brought it to life.
“What we learnt at Business School enabled us to master the rules of society. That’s something everyone would find useful.”
He credits his professors for giving him both the hard and soft skills necessary to thrive as a documentary filmmaker.
“Associate Professor Daniel McAllister was a great teacher and mentor,” he says. “His mentorship during the Bizad Leadership Development Programme was really crucial for my critical thinking. He taught me to grapple with the more complex issues.”
Kah Jing (third from left) with international students at the NUS Business Leadership Development Programme
On the practical aspects of entrepreneurship, he is grateful to have attended Associate Professor Ravi Chandran’s Legal Environment In Business module.
“When I came across my first contract project, I was forced by necessity to set up a private enterprise. Fortunately, at the same time, I was in Prof Ravi’s class, and was able to seek his advice on whether it was advisable to set up a Limited Liability Partnership, which was covered in our syllabus,” Kah Jing explains. “Since then, OKJ Works has evolved into a Private Limited Company, and unlike some of my Film Studies peers, I don’t have an allergic reaction to reading grant documents and legal fine print!”
However, Kah Jing believes that his biggest takeaway from NUS Business School is the ability to communicate well with people from different backgrounds, be they finance department staff, public relations associates, or corporate clients.
“When I’m meeting with the clients, I would pitch my documentary to them like I would pitch a start-up to an angel investor. I would speak to them in terms of KPIs, timelines and budgets.”
Kah Jing’s most recent accomplishment is the release of Game For Life, his debut documentary series featuring a legendary all-Singaporean cast of coaches, sportsmen and sportswomen, which he directed, produced and wrote as commissioned by Sport Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
The culture at NUS Business School also empowered him and gave him the courage to strike out. During his time, no one in the cohort asked why he was not thinking about pursuing a career like banking. On the contrary, everyone supported one another in their ambitions and struggles, however different they may be.
“There were a lot of people who came in with motivation and intention. And with those people, I really learnt a lot from their struggles, even if it was vicarious,” he recalls.
“We didn’t just go to school to learn how a business works.
We went in to learn how to bring our visions to life.”
He hopes future generations of NUS Business students will find the same supportive network as he did, while making full use of the opportunities on offer.
“Treat the curriculum as your ‘how’, while using the vast opportunities available to find your ‘why’,” he explains. “Only by participating in everything on offer, and only by finding your ‘why’, can you make the entire experience worthwhile.”
Even today, OKJ Works continues to draw on Kah Jing’s NUS experience to innovate and shape the future. Recalling the Business Leadership Development Programme’s lessons on 5G and its potential to reshape mobile streaming, he is moving into new video content and social media platforms like TikTok.
“This year, I’m producing a TikTok documentary series
about my 18-month journey to study for my Chinese O-Levels which I will take for the first time. It will also feature Singaporeans from all walks of life,” he shares, with visible excitement. “As a filmmaker, you pour your heart and soul into the story. As an entrepreneur, we have to be sensible about distribution. I’m striving to have a much bigger presence on mainstream social media platforms.”