Passion Made Plausible: Hearing the Case of the (Singapore) Busker

By Alfonse Chiu

In his second GRC piece, Alfonse Chiu deconstructs performativity—of an ostensibly passionate public, and the reality of regulations that corral the humble street performer. Tracing the ethos of street performance alongside the state’s designs on a cultural economy, Alfonse contextures an aural fabric of what is creatively permissible and marketable in this global arts city.

Passion Made Plausible: Hearing the Case of the (Singapore) Busker, Part II of a series on sensing in the city. Image courtesy of the author.

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For the observant and the romantic, all cities have unique to themselves two soundtracks that play parallel to each other for as long as the cities in question exist. One, mostly incidental and frequently terrible, comprises the various elements of the diegetic soundscape—slamming doors, buzzing street lamps, the murmur of jammed traffic—that we are privy to as characters in this farce of an existence. The other, much more deliberate and practised, consists of actual music—definitions of which vary depending on your precise demographic makeup—that either managed to break free of the confines of some git’s earphones to make its (un)welcome place in the universe or is intentionally injected into our ears by enthusiastic disciples of the sonic sort. Bathroom warblers, balcony sopranos, tone-deaf karaoke aunties, and loud-speaker-infused vehicles aside, street performers tend to be a less grating addition to the public spaces we occupy.

The advent of street performers arose in roughly the same time that streets started to exist, and in many ways, the practice of performing in the streets is as much shaped by the legislatures that surround it as it is by the technical craftsmanship and the contextual needs of the performers themselves. “Much of the history of street performance . . . is found in the laws that prohibit it,” writes American performance scholar Sally Harrison-Pepper in her seminal book Drawing a Circle in the Square: Street Performing in New York’s Washington Square. The power relations that underlie the ways state apparatuses control and utilise street performance are further explored by geographer Nigel Thrift, who observes that “[a]s cities are increasingly expected to have ‘buzz’, to be ‘creative’, and to generally bring forth powers of invention and intuition, all of which can be forged into economic weapons, so the active engineering of the affective register of cities has been highlighted as the harnessing of the talent of transformation,”—and what better way to manipulate “buzz” than by acts of conscious curation and regulation of who gets to perform where, of what the affective landscape of the city could be?

We do not need to look beyond Singapore to find a good case study. Take for example, the Busking Scheme initiated by the National Arts Council (NAC). Originally introduced in 1992, legal street performance, or busking as it is commonly referred to in Singapore, was banned fairly shortly after its introduction, in 1994, following the non-compliance of NAC-stipulated regulations concerning donation-handling and designated busking spaces by performers, before being re-established in 1997 in its current form to promote tourism and the arts in the public sphere.

Discussions of legalising the practice actually pre-date proper legislature by almost a decade, with a significant piece running in the national broadsheet The Straits Times in 1989 that asked this crucial question: “Are Singaporeans ready to accept legalised busking?” and featured gems from the public as diverse as “In places like Orchard Road, [busking] could create a negative image for the tourists” and “I don’t like busking. It’s very noisy, especially pop songs. Tourists may get a bad impression and feel that Singaporeans are very disorderly.” Quite a far cry from NAC’s current position that buskers are “part of the daily creative pulse of Singapore’s streetscape”—the facilitation of which allows the Busking Scheme to “enliven[] city life and energise[] urban spaces”.

While the national anxiety that a form of public cultural expression might adversely impact touristic potential has uncertain roots, it could definitely be felt as a meaningful echo of the state position on tourism as an industry of the era—it was in the 1980s that the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB, now STB, or the Singapore Tourism Board) supervised the execution of the billion-dollar Tourism Product Development Plan, which advocated for the preservation of historic districts such as Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street, the rejuvenation and clean-up of the Singapore River, as well as the creation of new products and events emblematic of the image that the authority sought to project into the global arena.

Street performance, while organic and indicative of a certain joie de vivre in the population, is also volatile and idiosyncratic, much unlike the easily controllable nature of commissioned acts, or the static, placid state of installations and public art works. By virtue of its open access to the public and its involvement of generally amateur—a term that is itself a contentious qualifier—practitioners, busking is a subversion of the state construction of the ideal Singaporean individual as a poised professional, secure in their industrial domains and remote from the grit of something as common as street life, which apparently needs to exist on a gentrified, sanitised register to be appealing to ostensibly western tourists; all as a means to set the local context apart from its Third World, and presumably crude, neighbours. From this point-of-view, one could thus see how street performers could be perceived as a threat to the systemic, near-mechanical precision face-lift the state has planned.

However, just as how the notion of a creative city gained traction in worldwide urban planning practices from the mid-1990s to the turn of the millennium, alongside the development of a lexicon for what is deemed as a cultural economy, so did the realisation by state agencies globally that the urban culture scape holds tremendous power over how the public life of a city can be represented and consumed; Thrift’s previously mentioned notion of “buzz” comes to mind. The formation of a vibrant arts and culture scene is now finally perceived as an indispensable element of a well-functioning city, which in Singapore, is manifested on the policy level through the inauguration of the Renaissance City Plan (RCP) in year 2000, which aimed “[t]o establish Singapore as a global arts city…where there is an environment conducive to creative and knowledge-based industries and talent,” and “provide cultural ballast in our nation-building efforts” so as to “strengthen Singaporeans’ sense of national identity and belonging.” While not explicitly stated, one gets the sense that vernacular street culture may start to be valued more.

While having had some amendments, the planning-and-development-centric RCP is underscored by the front-facing and ever-evolving campaigns of the tourism board, which played up the degree of sophistication and spectacle the local cultural industries could provide through slogans such as “Passion Made Possible”.

Given this seemingly welcoming catchphrase, does everyone who wants to become a busker get to become one if they have a talent to offer? Not quite. Based on the official guide of the busking application process, the very step of this journey starts with an assessment of one’s eligibility. Citizens and Permanent Residents clear this hurdle immediately, while international students and residing foreigners who hold “valid employment pass and written consent from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)” need to submit their documents to be evaluated separately. Work permit holders are left out of this conversation entirely, even as the current cultural scene includes several initiatives to nurture their artistic practices through mentorships and opportunities, and awareness for migrant worker’s rights gradually increase. What are the reasons for such considerations, and why are only employment pass holders, who are defined by MOM as “foreign professionals, managers and executives to work in Singapore [who] need to earn at least $3,600 a month and have acceptable qualifications”, the only type of foreign worker allowed to perform?

Beyond the conditions of eligibility, the terms that accompany a performer’s quest for the elusive Busking Card (Letter of Endorsement)—never call it a license or the state officials get real mad—are similarly cryptic: for example, even if you are a musical group with multiple members, only those who attended the mandatory audition would have their identity reflected on the Card and allowed to perform; no two performers, even those whose solo acts have been approved, may perform together unless they register for another exclusive joint Card; all prospective buskers need to pick a maximum of eight possible designated busking areas (of which no more than 3 should be within the Orchard Road area) and a preferred time of busking; even in the application form itself, prospects need to declare their level of education, type of housing, and monthly income…the list goes on. All that and more just to “share [] creative expressions and interact with audience in the public space”. What a hoot, eh.

How do street performers intervene in urban life and public spaces, and what are the effects? Reflecting on the subway musicians of New York, American civil servant Susie Tanenbaum notes that street performance is an accessible “urban ritual that challenges the way we think about public space by promoting spontaneous, democratic, intimate encounters” within some of the most “routinised and alienating environments” of the city.

Indeed, the conviviality and openness of a street performance is often what makes it so marvelous, that many a time it is no longer about the craft of the performance itself but the almost magical amalgamation of an intense, transient relationship between the performer, the viewer, and the environment as the instance of the performance; an instance where agency presents itself in a clear, unadulterated form through the democratic and consensual participation of a collective act. It is with this in mind that one will find it easy seeing the irony of state apparatuses which, by aiming to manufacture, distill, and bottle this spirit up for the consumption of decontextualised visitors, stifles it instead through over-regulation and an artificial selection process; sometimes, all a space needs is to be left alone.

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