Freeing Singapore's Street Performances

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: