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The ‘Cikgu Man’ Affair: Since When Is Busking A Crime?


Are local authorities waging war on Malaysian talent? For veteran saxophonist “Cikgu Man” of Sg Petani, Kedah, the answer seems to be a disappointing yes. Guest writer Jerome Kugan puts it in plain terms.

In the midst of KL City Hall’s unsolicited (and unlawful) takedown of Dato Syed Ahmad Jamal’s sculpture “Lunar Peaks”, it appears that authorities around the country have declared war on artistic expressions in public.

Such was the case for 57-year-old jazz saxophonist Abdul Rahman Zainol, affectionately known as “Cikgu Man”, who received a most humiliating ultimatum that he can no longer busk on the streets of his hometown in Sg Petani, Kedah.

The incident occurred on June 23, when the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Social Welfare Department) of Kuala Muda confronted Cikgu Man while he was performing for passers-by at a Ramadan bazaar, confiscated his instrument, and carted him off in their van, demanding that he signed an agreement to never again perform in public as a busker as a condition for returning his saxophone to him.

The Department’s reasoning for doing so, according to Malaysiakini , was because it deemed Cikgu Man’s act of busking as encouraging the act of begging.

Not taking into account at all the fact that Cikgu Man has a diploma in music, is a retired music teacher, whose saxophone costs RM2,000, and counts among his many achievements as having performed with the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee and for the Sultan of Kedah, the Department simply lumped the veteran musician together with beggars and decided that was that.

Needless to say, Cikgu Man and family were devastated. Cikgu Man’s son-in-law, Mohamad Nazmi Zaidi Moni took to social media and vented his disbelief and frustrations at the Department’s handling of the situation.

According to Mohammad Nazmi, Cikgu Man busks in his retirement as a way to share his love of music with the public, and the money he collects is simply a way to make a bit on the side — as far as I know, musicians don’t get a pension in this country.
Without going into the whole dire issue of how Malaysian authorities are dealing urban poverty, the homeless and, by extension, street beggars — remember when KL City Hall forcibly relocated homeless people from downtown KL and dumped them in Rawang as part of their cleanup efforts? — the Cikgu Man affair brings up so many unsavoury revelations about how public art is perceived in this country.

Busking is not begging.

First of all, busking is not begging. Buskers “busk” for money. Beggars, on the other hand, do not perform; they “beg” for money. But even if it is hard to tell one apart from the other, it is very deeply ironic that public servants from what is clearly called the Social Welfare Department lack empathy on this very basic, fundamental human level.

As to the Department’s claim that busking may lead to begging… well, we don’t really concrete studies on this phenomenon, do we? This is simply an assumption by the Department officials. Buskers and beggars are both attracted to places with a lot of people because it’s strategic. Why would anyone busk or beg in places where nobody goes?

And what is wrong with busking? As a tradition that lies deep in the heart of the history of the arts around the world, busking recalls the travelling troubadours, artisans and performers of the past who would trudge their talents from village to village in order to eke out a precarious living from public patronage. It’s from traditions like busking that led to the arts institutions as we know them today.

In fact, many artists who we regard as icons today started out as buskers. The great American folk singer Woody Guthrie was a busker. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez started their careers busking in front of cafes before they were discovered. Even Justin Bieber started his career performing as a shopping mall busker.

Among Malaysians, some of our best-loved singer songwriters like Azmyl Yunor, Meor and Sharidir Syed, began performing in public as street buskers.

Granted, not everybody likes buskers. But some people do. To me, it’s a durian thing — just because one person may not like durian, it doesn’t mean durians should be banned from the streets. Cikgu Man is not a durian, of course. But what happened to him is a definite stinker and I for one hope that he will be allowed to perform again as a busker.

Is busking really a crime? Read our follow-up article: 5 things you don’t know about… busking in Malaysia.

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