Freeing Singapore's Street Performances

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This article is concurrently hosted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Singapore has often been described as a spotless, safe and efficient city, perhaps somewhat on the boring side too.

Along our Orchard Road, there are shoppers with bulging bags of branded goods. There are very few – if there are at all – portrait artists, magicians and pianists. Unlike other cosmopolitan cities, our streets seem too clean, almost devoid of creative energy.

A check on the National Arts Council website reveals that the process to becoming a street performer in Singapore is not a simple process.

Firstly, interested applicants have to fill in a form. Then, they have to go for a compulsory bootcamp before attending an audition on pre-arranged dates. During the audition, they’ll be assessed for “competency and skill in performance, expression and confidence in performance, engagement with the audience, innovation and originality”.

If that isn’t enough to deter potential performers, there is a need for them to re-audition after their Letter of Endorsement had expired after one to two years.

Why Such Barriers to Street Performing?

There are very good reasons why it is difficult to obtain a license for street performing.

People who have obtained these National Arts Council-given licenses are obliged not to actively solicit donation, not to make vulgar or obscene gestures, not to obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic and not to make too much noise. These rules encourage street performers to be gracious and responsible.

Such stiff barriers may also protect the audience. In Russia, there are even reports of syndicated crime. Accomplices of the street artistes will pick-pocket from inattentive onlookers.

Singapore isn’t the only city that requires licenses for street performing. Other cities – including London and New York – require permits too. However, the enforcement of such rules in these cities may be far more lax. According to online forums, there are people who continue their street acts there, with or without the licenses.

Let’s Perform With Less Terms and Conditions

During a recent Channel NewsAsia forum, our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that, “we’re building a city not just of clean streets and nice greenery, but a Singapore that works, with spirit.”

Removing the multiple barriers to becoming a street performer in Singapore may be a positive step that literally ensures our city doesn’t just have clean streets with nice greenery.

Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland may be a good place to look for some inspiration. This street is a popular space, dynamic and surprising; visitors love to meander along its boutiques and sample from its eateries and street performances. In fact, it is a must-visit attraction.

One may encounter an artist sculpting a dog from buckets of sand, or a trio pretending to be sculptures, perhaps even one musician playing a piano(!).

Photos credit: Darren Yeo
The dog plays an important role with its soulful eyes.

How did this performer manage to get a piano onto the street?!
 One reason why Dublin has so many street performers is the absence of many rules and regulations.

From this case study, we understand that there’re potential benefits in relaxing our rigid stance:

1) This allows our city to have a dynamic and creative spirit beyond “clean streets and nice scenery”. Singapore can do with a bit of controlled mess, with some performing surprises along its streets.

2) At the same time, it expands the spaces readily available to performers. Some arts enthusiasts have shared with me the problems of trying to perform in Singapore – the venues are expensive (up to a few thousand dollars per night to rent spaces for performing) and the reach to appreciative audience may be limited.

3) It might also be a good selling point for tourism, to have a street where performers gather together to entertain and delight.

Some Suggestions

According to the National Arts Council website, our current busking scheme aims to “make the arts more accessible to the public.” Given the tedium of applying for performance permits – filling in forms, attending a bootcamp, going for auditions, getting re-certified – it is questionable how such a scheme can help achieve one of its publicly stated objectives.

To grow the arts scene in Singapore further, perhaps we can do away with our current regulations on street performing. A code of conduct may be expected of all street performers and an online platform set up for people to report on problems caused by ungracious performers. For recalcitrant performers, perhaps we can issue monetary fines – after all, Singapore does have the reputation for being a ‘fine city’.

It’d be great to walk along our streets and be delighted by wonderful surprises, such as the plein-air painting by this visual artist:

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The Interdependence of Life

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"To exist, a flower needs the sun, clouds, rain, earth, minerals, maybe even a gardener. Many non-flower elements come together to help the flower manifest itself, and if we remove these elements, there is no flower left."

- an excerpt adapted from
Awakening My Heart
by Andrea Miller

What a beautiful thought, this idea that the delicate fragrance of flowers springs from forces that we often forget about. 

When we taste the sweet yellow flesh of mangoes or sip from a cup of honeyed water, do we remember how they came about? Do we recall the light pulsing through the veins of a tree and bees hurdling from blossom to blossom?

It'll be wonderful to look at a spring of orchids, and imagine them as the children of earth, water, air, sunlight and moonshine.


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Let's Talk About Dying

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“So, let’s talk about dying.”

“What about dying?” 


“Let’s talk about people too young to die, talk about people who scripted their deaths and painted emptiness where they were.”

“Can we not talk about this?”

“No.”

“Why not?” 

“Well, I want -”

“Well, I don’t.” 

“Please?”

“Fine. Whatever.” 

“Let’s imagine this guy who died is someone -"

“Who is he? Wait, do you even know who died?" 

“Well, sort of. I don’t know him well enough. You know what poisons his death? He didn't die from an illness or accident, no crumpling of vehicles, no sudden crash. No one to blame. He enacted his death with a noose. Why, why, why?” 

“Well, calm down, be –"

"Why didn't he turn to us, any of us? His friends from high school and junior college? His classmates from university, his confidantes from the poetry writing class? His professors? We're all around.”

“Life can be unpredictable, huh?” 

“Enough with this philosophical bullshit, honestly. Don’t exploit his death to spread messages about life and love."

"I... ... I... Oh, look, look at that professor. His nose is so sharp. I bet if his head’s cut off  and stuffed, his nose would make a good coat-hanger.”

“I’m afraid that this isn’t funny, not at all.”

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Upfront! With Jasmine Ann Cooray, Resident Poet At Cinnamon College

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This post is concurrently hosted on The Kent Ridge Common.
Here's Jasmine reciting her poetry at ContraDiction 2013. Image credit: Yawning Bread
Jasmine Ann Cooray has received the 2013 Singapore Creative Writing Residency Programme co-funded by The Arts House and University Scholars Programme, NUS. A poet and psychotherapist-in-training, Jasmine hails from London. Here, we speak to Jasmine to find out more about the art of crafting words.

Hi, Jasmine! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. For starters, would you please share your reasons for applying to this writing residency in Singapore?

This residency is a dream. It is not often that writers are paid just to write, and develop their practice. Most of the time we have to squeeze it into the cracks in our day jobs. I was lucky enough to hear about it and even luckier to be awarded the post.

What were your initial thoughts and feelings when you realised that you clinched the residency?

I was in a state of shock, to be honest, and it didn’t sink in for months. But once it sunk in, I was really excited to leave London and come and be somewhere else for six months. I was keen to make the most out of the time, and enjoy it as much as possible.

More than half of your residency is over. How has the experience been thus far?

It has been too quick! I can’t believe it is halfway through already. So far I have met some incredible warm and generous people, and been included in people’s lives and families. It’s also been great to have a lot of time and space to work on my writing and to develop my teaching practice with the NUS students. At first, the amount of time to write was quite overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure I could fulfill expectations, but having settled in and made a lot of new work, I’m less worried now.

How do you find the NUS students you’re mentoring? Are they too quiet or too vocal? Too brilliant, not brilliant enough?

What a question! I’m doing poetry workshops with two quite different groups, but there has been some excellent writing from everyone. My sessions are not credited, and happen in the evenings, so I am just pleased that everyone comes as much as they do, to be part of the groups and try out some different things.

There are some really sharp ideas, and some strong personalities too. I’ve definitely been kept on my toes! I like having the mix because I think it is important that everyone has a chance to express themselves. Discussions have been varied and rich, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the writing that we have been making together. I don’t mind quiet group members- as long as people feel there is space for them to speak, it is up to them how to use the time.

I understand that you’ve been taking part in public readings. How are the experiences? How different or similar are the Singaporean listeners, compared to the London crowd that you’re more used to?

It’s different depending on context. I’ve read at more formal events, like my event at The Arts House at the beginning of my residency, and at more casual evenings, like SPEAK at Home Club. Every space, every night is different- and you can never tell how engaged people really are. But I don’t mind so much- if I feel that I reached someone, that there was some level of attentiveness, that’s usually enough. I have the luxury of novelty because I’m a visitor. If I was in London, there would be a lot more people who would have already heard my work.

What inspires you to write?

Love, family. Working out how to stay sane in all the madness. Things on the street. Race. Gender.Nature. Sex. Hard and painful lessons. Usually: human behaviour. I’m not so drawn to the abstract- it is people and our complexity that grabs me.

What makes a good poem?

Are you serious? Personally, I think if a poem explores something genuine, and tries to tell a story in a way that is interesting and creative, then that’s the basics. Most other things are the technicalities around that. You can have a technically good, soulless poem. I’d rather have something raw but honest.

What do you hope to achieve?

I’m working on my full collection, which I’m hoping to have a draft of by the end, and I’m also developing some stories. Otherwise, just exploring and developing my relationship with my work, and also developing the talent of young writers here. There is some great work going on that I’m scheming to support in a few different ways.

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Write from what you know and be brave enough to write about how you really feel. Don’t assume that it has been done or that people will not like it. In fact, ignore your inner critic entirely. You can’t play with it breathing down your neck. Read when you can. Experiment but come back to your own style and perspective. Try things out. And remember that there are always more words, so there’s no need to be precious about them.

Any upcoming event that you wish to invite our readers to?

I’ll be moderating at The Arts House for SWF Fringe: Meet the Author: Terri Windling.

I’ll also be speaking at Darkness and Dystopia, alongside Alvin Pang, Krishna Udayyasankar and Kosal Khiev on 8 Nov, Friday, 7pm-8pm, Molly Roffey’s Irish Pub (Manulife Centre).

And I have a poetry set at Artistry in Bugis on 6th November.

Also, please look out for the publication of NUS students’ poetry towards the end of the term. A launch event will happen, where you will hear some exciting new poetry from your fellow NUSians.

Thanks, Jasmine, for this sharing!

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We're all caricatures

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We’re caricatures
of our childhood dreams,
now limp dolls
with glassy eyes
on inflated heads
above wrinkling bodies.

We grip
our kaleidoscopes
of stars and sequins,
our magnets
tickling iron dust,
our microscopes
that enlarge life.

When did we stop
tinkering with them?
When did we droop
into plastic dolls?

We’re all caricatures
of our childhood dreams.
It’s almost comedic.

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Nature Poems

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The Trees
Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Deaths of Flowers
E.J. Scovell

I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again - though all achieved is
No more than a clenched sadness,

The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip's reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.

Iris.
Source credit: Stephen Danko.
Age
Kay Ryan

As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

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