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The Big Read: Braving the elements and social prejudice, busking is not for the faint-hearted

SINGAPORE — For a performer like Muhammad Firdaus Osman, who sings love songs while strumming his guitar, one of the most lucrative public stages in Singapore is its streets.

More than 20 years after a scheme was introduced to allow performers to add more colour to the streets of Singapore, the busking scene has grown from strength to strength.

More than 20 years after a scheme was introduced to allow performers to add more colour to the streets of Singapore, the busking scene has grown from strength to strength.

SINGAPORE — For a performer like Muhammad Firdaus Osman, who sings love songs while strumming his guitar, one of the most lucrative public stages in Singapore is its streets.

The 25-year-old, who used to participate in dance and acapella groups when he was in school, is today a full-time busker who performs in front of Wisma Atria shopping mall on Orchard Road at least three times a week.  

Better known as Fyrdauz Macbeth, he spends at least three hours each evening serenading passers-by along the shopping belt not only to earn a living but also because he wants to “spread the love”.

“You cannot expect a steady income out of busking because the amount you get for the day depends on a lot of things — the weather, the time of the month, whether people had gotten their bonuses,” said Mr Firdaus, adding that he gets about S$100 per busking session. 

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Another full-time busker is Jonathan Goh, one half of circus act duo The Annoying Brothers. Based on the weather, the quality of the act and location, circus acts such as theirs can normally earn up to S$300 a session, the 23-year-old said. 

More than two decades after a scheme was introduced in 1997 to allow performers to add more colour to the streets of Singapore, the busking scene has grown from strength to strength. Performers like Mr Firdaus and Mr Goh even find it worth their while to make busking their bread and butter, despite the challenges they face. 

There are currently about 300 “endorsed” performers — those who have been issued with a busking card by the National Arts Council (NAC) — and 81 designated locations for them to showcase their acts. 

But the growth of busking here has also resulted in greater competition for space, especially for the popular and more lucrative spots — an issue highlighted by Mr Louis Ng, Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC, in Parliament last week.

To make busking more accessible and fairer for everyone, Mr Ng made several suggestions, such as the use of balloting for keenly contested sites, and an application to help buskers — and audiences — keep track of popular performance spots.

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Under the busking scheme, endorsed buskers occupy the allocated spots on a first-come-first-served-basis. Each busker — after passing an audition before a panel of judges — is given five designated locations. But some of these locations have little human traffic, pushing the buskers to look for more crowded areas. 

In some busking hotspots along Orchard Road and Clarke Quay, performers have been known to reserve space at noon, only to perform in the evening.

“They will come to ‘chope’ a spot by putting all of their equipment there. Then they’ll go missing and only come back to play in the evening,” said Mr Firdaus.

He has seen arguments and fights erupting among buskers over this matter. Visits by the police when such conflicts break out have provided only short-term solutions, Mr Firdaus added. 

Mr Goh said that aside from misusing the first-come-first-served rule, competition among the buskers also intensifies when they are located not too far apart from each other — often causing them to try and drown each other’s music or singing.

“Space is an issue, some buskers feel like they should be at least 50 metres apart while some buskers believes that 10 metres is fine. There are no proper guidelines to follow,” he added.

Meanwhile, the situation in the housing estates is not as bad, according to freelance busker Teo Yong Kang, 22. But this was after a group of buskers set up a Whatsapp chat group to share their busking schedules and locations.

“Maybe there are fewer of us in the heartlands, so we just spread ourselves out evenly. Of course, there will still be one or two buskers who will hog spots and refuse to share them but the hogging problem is significantly lesser than those in town,” said Mr Teo, who is a Singapore Management University undergraduate.

Mr Ng had proposed that the ballot system be trialled in front of hotspots such as the Ngee Ann City shopping centre and Clarke Quay.

He also suggested reserving specific sites for street performers who require more space such as circus acts.

Mr Goh, for one, welcomes the proposal to allow reservation of sites for certain performances. As a circle act — where audience members will create a circle around performers — The Annoying Brothers require the audience to stay throughout the show, which usually takes about 15 to 45 minutes.

“We need a space that is big enough to ensure the safety of the audience and passers-by. We also require a street that has really high foot traffic because we need a huge audience base to start our show,” said Mr Goh.

As a circle act — where audience members will create a circle around performers — The Annoying Brothers require the audience to stay throughout the show, which usually takes about 15 to 45 minutes. Photo: The Annoying Brothers

‘WE ARE NOT BEGGARS’ 

Buskers interviewed by TODAY are aware that some members of the public regard them as beggars — a notion they firmly rejected. 

Under the busking scheme, endorsed buskers can collect tips from the public but they cannot actively ask for money. 

Mr Teo said: “Contrary to popular belief, buskers are not beggars. We actually put in effort to audition for a licence, and put in a lot of effort in our performance.”

Mr Goh recounted that he even had people asking him point-blank: “You perform in the streets ah? Are you a beggar?” 

He said: “We put in so much effort into perfecting our acts, setting up our own ‘stage’ and even put on costumes for our shows. That’s the difference between buskers and beggars.”

Mr Goh’s family was initially hesitant to support his foray into the world of busking — even though they had encouraged him to focus on his love for performing as a means of keeping him away from bad company in his teenage years.

Now that Mr Goh has his family’s support, he hopes to use busking as a platform to reach his bigger dream of becoming a circus performer.

Perceptions aside, the audience’s reaction — or lack of it — is also something that buskers here must grapple with. 

Buskers Franck Yannick, 38, and Jason Yu, 25, said Singaporeans in general need more time to warm up as compared to those in other countries.

Mr Yannick, a full-time performer who goes by the moniker “Emjay Singapore”, had been performing in France since he was 16. He successfully applied for a busking licence here when he got his permanent residency three years ago.

Before he became a Michael Jackson impersonator, the Frenchman was working as a waiter at The Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Mr Franck Yannick, 38, poses for a portrait along Clarke Quay. He has been a busker for 20 years. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

Mr Yannick said the Singaporean crowd could be a little “cold”.

“They can be a little quiet as compared to the ones in France. But even though they are quiet, they are also more respectful towards the performer,” said Mr Yannick.

He added that Singaporeans are not very open to the concept of full-time performers or buskers because they “are not sure of what (we) do exactly”.

Mr Yu, a Monash University undergraduate, used to busk in Orchard and Yew Tee before he pursued his music degree in Melbourne.

While the Singaporean crowd may be harder to please, “busking in Singapore is way safer”, he pointed out. “The people in Melbourne are more outgoing and outspoken, but they also like to disturb or disrupt your performance at times,” he said.  

Still, aspiring singer Muhammad Harith Matin Dewashah felt that the Singapore public has, in recent years, become “more supportive of buskers especially when they can feel our heart and soul in our performances”. 

“They will actually stop to listen to you sing, and that is the best feeling ever,” said Mr Harith, who has been busking for the past two years. He also works as a freelance sound engineer to support himself.

He added: “I don’t have a target (the amount collected) in mind. As long as people genuinely love my performance and want to make a contribution, I’m more than happy to do what I do.” 

A STEPPING STONE TO BIGGER THINGS 

For some, performing on the streets has opened new doors for them. 

Mr Yannick, for example, said he has received calls from companies which want him to perform at corporate events and birthday parties, and even for calefare roles on television. 

He makes it a point to display his mobile number that he cuts out of purple glitter paper on a noticeboard when he does his impersonation of the late American “King of Pop”. 

Apart from their phone numbers, some buskers including Mr Firdaus and Mr Harith display their social media handles instead.

Mr Firdaus and Mr Harith also use Instagram to interact with their followers and inform them of their busking locations and schedules.

“I think it’s important to reach out as performers, especially when you have made friends from all over the world through busking,” said Mr Firdaus. 

To date, Mr Firdaus has been featured in national media platforms such as Mediacorp’s BeLive app and Ria 89.7FM where he shared his journey as a busker.

Mr Muhammad Firdaus Osman, otherwise known as “Fyrdauz Macbeth”, poses for a portrait along Orchard Road, where he usually busks. He has been a busker for four years. Photo: Najeer Yusof/ TODAY

Just like Mr Firdaus, Mr Harith has also gained a lot of exposure through street performing.

Aside from performing at weddings and corporate events, Mr Harith said his proudest moment so far was when he was featured on Kiss92 FM’s evening show. 

“It was really cool. Busking can really open doors,” he said. 

Unlike his younger counterparts, veteran busker Roy Payamal — who has been featured in a documentary called Singapore Minstrel — does not need the publicity.

Outside the Ngee Ann City shopping mall, the 55-year-old human statue would stand in the same pose for two hours — to a variety of ‘80s hit such as Purple Rain — during each performance.

Better known as the “Silver Man”, he gets a thrill from being the centre of attention and piquing people’s curiosity.

“The whole idea is to question whether it’s possible to entertain people by doing nothing,” he said. “I don’t want to be like everybody else. I like to do things spontaneously.”

THE BUSKING SCENE’S EVOLUTION 

Mr Baey Yam Keng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, told Parliament last week that the number of younger performers has more than doubled since 2008. Out of the 300 “endorsed” buskers currently, half are below the age of 35. 

The Annoying Brothers’ Mr Goh said the demographic of buskers has changed a lot because busking is not frowned upon among the younger generation.

“There are more younger people on the streets because we all want to showcase the talents we have, and we don’t care what anyone else thinks,” he added.

Mr Goh noted that five years ago, most of the buskers featured in the Sentosa Buskers Festival were not even Singaporean.

“I was so inspired by them. I got tips and learnt tricks on how to engage an audience and I used them to improve myself,” he said. 

“But it was a pity we had to call in foreigners to busk in our country,” he added. 

In recent years, the Sentosa Buskers Festival has been replaced by festivals such as DBS Busking by the Bay and Singapore River Buskers’ festival, which have a full line-up of local acts, including The Annoying Brothers. 

Mr Goh recalled that when he and his partner, Mr Edwin Ong, busked for the first time in 2014, their circus act was so bad that “the crowd walked away halfway through the show”. The duo earned only S$8 that day.

In recent years, Mr Goh found that members of the audience are more willing to give tips, now that many buskers are also making a name for themselves.

Mr Jonathan Goh (standing) recalled that when he and his partner, Mr Edwin Ong, busked for the first time in 2014, their circus act was so bad that “the crowd walked away halfway through the show”. Photo: The Annoying Brothers

Mr Payamal has also seen a big change in the busking scene over the years. 

“I see a lot of young people these days with their guitars, singing some Ed Sheeran songs. It’s good that they’re busking rather than they do bad things,” he said.

He hopes to see more variety of buskers in the future as he believes that the street is a good platform for people to express their art.  

CO-EXISTING IN A DIVERSE COMMUNITY  

As more younger buskers enter the scene, a street guitarist, who only wanted to be known as Mr Eddie, said that there is a need for them to learn how to co-exist with each other within the limited space available, such as in popular Clarke Quay where he busks.

“Usually I wait for the sun to go down before I start busking. But when I’m about to start, there’s always some other busker who will set up (his equipment) right next to me,” he said.

Mr Eddie believes buskers should leave ample space between themselves so as to not steal each other’s audience.

“I can compromise, but younger buskers now must also learn proper busking etiquette. Not all of them are bad, but a handful ruin the experience for all of us,” he added.

The suggestions made by Mr Ng on how to improve the busking scene have generally received the thumbs up from the busking community, although some have expressed reservations, especially over the balloting issue. 

Mr Ng told TODAY that he took into account the feedback of buskers before recommending balloting at hotspots in Orchard and Clarke Quay.

Addressing the “chope-ing” problem, he feels that a balloting system will “allow a diversity in performances rather than having the same busker at that site”.

Most of the buskers whom TODAY spoke to agreed that balloting is a good idea.

“Some buskers are really stingy with their spots. They ‘die die’ don’t want to give it up or even share it,” said Mr Firdaus.

The Annoying Brothers’ Mr Ong reiterated that this will help ensure everyone has a fair chance to busk at the popular spots. 

“Finally, someone is doing something about this hogging issue. This problem has been the most significant one, because buskers face it almost every week,” he said.

However, some buskers are less receptive to the proposed balloting system, as they prefer more spontaneity — which is partly why they are attracted to busking in the first place. 

Mr Eddie felt that it would involve “too much work” for him.

“It’s very troublesome to go through all this trouble to ballot,” he said. “The way I look at it, if you know a spot is taken, just move to the next one. If we respect each other as artists and performers, there won’t be a problem.” 

 Mr Payamal added: “We busk because we are spontaneous people. We just go out there and show people what we are made of. But now if we have to do so many things just to busk, I think we will lose our essence.”

To address these concerns, Mr Ng said the authorities could look into making the balloting system as straightforward as possible so that it will not be an “administrative burden” to the buskers.

Veteran busker Roy Payamal, seen posing as a human statue along Orchard Road. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

YOUNG BUSKERS TAKING THE LEAD 

Official efforts aside, some of the younger members of the community are taking the lead themselves to take busking here to the next level. 

Mr Firdaus, Mr Teo, Mr Goh, along with two others, are in the process of forming a busking association, which hopes to develop a code of practice for the busking community. 

Mr Firdaus said: “Last time, when we face problems, you either call the police or the NAC and they will give you a short-term solution. Now we are just hoping to make a change with this association.”

“Ultimately, all of us just want to perform and have a good time,” he added.

Mr Ong hopes that buskers here realise that conflict among themselves — such as openly fighting for space or hogging a popular spot — is not only tarnishing the image of the community as a whole, but, perhaps more importantly, threatening their livelihood. 

He likens buskers to personal mobility device (PMD) riders, which have received bad press because of the actions of a few. 

“It’s always the black sheep in the community that will give the rest a bad reputation. Just like the PMD community, not all of them are errant riders,” said Mr Ong.

As the younger buskers seek to bring about improvements for the whole community, older ones like Mr Payamal are happy to go along with the changes — so long as they can be left alone.

“They can make whatever changes they want to make. As long as I still get to perform and my show can still go on, I’m good,” he said.

Related topics

busking street performers arts and culture

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