Charting his own Course
A former civil servant, Mr Martino Tan (Public Policy ‘09) took a leap of faith and quit his job when the opportunity came to set up a news website — and today Mothership.sg has proved it was worth the gamble.
WHO IS HE?
Mr Martino Tan is the Deputy Managing Director and Managing Editor at Mothership.sg, an online news platform. He previously worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, and also served as Head, New Media, Media Relations at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
In 2012, Mr Martino Tan was comfortably settled in his job as Senior Manager of online communications at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), managing Facebook posts for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when finance executive Mr Lien We King came knocking on his door, proposing a digital-only platform for young Singaporeans. Mr Lien had met with another young man before that: Mr Belmont Lay, the founder of satirical site New Nation. “Bear in mind that it was a year after the watershed 2011 general election,” he explained. “I felt that Singaporeans were still trying to make sense of it all, the political and social awakening.”
Despite their differences, the men shared this same view, as well as the idea of creating a site, “in the style of Buzzfeed in the US, inspired by the ideals of openness, inclusiveness and creativity.” “As writers just starting out, Belmont and I simply hoped to inform, educate and entertain our audience by presenting a new way of looking at Singapore-related news and stories,” Mr Tan elaborates. “On some level, we hoped to make Singapore ‘more exciting’, to entice Singaporeans to read and better understand more about this place we call home,” he explains. They embarked on “a long-running experiment” on the content of the site, shaped by the feedback they received from their then-small audience.
By June 2013, Mr Tan had resigned from the PMO and embarked on Mothership.sg (as the site came to be known) full time, building the website, speaking to freelancers, then sharing content on Facebook and Twitter. “We observed what worked and what didn’t,” he says. This beta phase was not easy, but Mr Tan remained hopeful. “We had a shoestring budget. The website crashed a couple of times, but we each had some experience in creating and managing online content — more importantly, with national-level types of interactions and virality — so we were unfazed by the volume and intensity of the reactions to our content,” he explains. “All that said,” he admits, “this was still a hefty risk. Although I was optimistic, I sought permission from my wife Denise to leave the civil service. We had gotten married the same year that I embarked on this adventure. I told her that I would give it my best shot for two to three years. It was a big move for the both of us.”
On some level, we hoped to make Singapore ‘more exciting’, to entice Singaporeans to read and better understand more about this place we call home.
A FINGER ON THE PULSE
The site was finally launched in February 2014. At a time when the popularity of traditional journalism was beginning to fade, Mothership.sg hit the right note with the public. The first story it ran was titled “48 Reasons Why You Still Feel For Singapore” and it attracted so many readers that the website crashed. That marked the beginning of Mothership.sg’s magnetic appeal to Singaporeans. Mr Tan’s and his team’s ability to capture the pulse of what moves Singaporeans at any given moment, and their dedication to keep evolving to meet the interests of their readership is what has kept Mothership.sg growing the last six years. Among their most enticing features are hilarious video interviews with the likes of Speaker of Parliament Mr Tan Chuan-Jin (who gamely starred in Mothership’s “How To MP” series of videos). More recently, their IG Asks with Gurmit Singh was played 260,000 times, while their “Mothership Hits the Streets” episode on the Bubble Tea phenomenon episode drew 808,000 views.
Today, Mr Tan, 38, is the Deputy Managing Director and Managing Editor of Mothership.sg, which is the most successful digital-only media platform in Singapore. Each month, the website attracts more than 4.2 million unique users, creating over 18 million page views a month. Mothership.sg has also been quick on the uptake when it comes to consumption of news on mobile, offering users news and entertaining content that invites social sharing.
Admittedly, Mothership.sg has some unique connections — such as links to two very important Mr Yeos, neither of whom are involved in its day-to-day operations. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Mr George Yeo, a friend of Mr Lien’s, serves as “Non-Executive Advisor”. Mr Tan shares, “He meets with us from time to time to share his views on big world moves. In our interactions with him, we are reminded of the importance of being sensitive to the larger forces at work.” Mr Philip Yeo was the "non-executive chairman' of Project Fishermen, which funded Mothership.sg in its initial years. In January 2016, Mothership.sg re-registered as a private limited company, Bridgewater Holdings Pte Ltd. As its non executive chairman, Mr Yeo continues to receive regular updates on Mothership.sg’s progress from Mr Lien.
A NURTURED WORLDVIEW
The father of a toddler named Francesco Jon, Mr Tan had previously worked mostly in social and political organisations. While pursuing his Masters in Public Policy, Public Management and Governance at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), he served as a legislative assistant in Parliament, helping an MP to draft parliamentary speeches and questions. From 2009 to 2012, he managed media relations at the then-Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, before joining the PMO in Feb 2012 to handle online communications for the Prime Minister. He has also had stints at the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA), Oxfam and The Washington Center.
Mr Tan credits his years at LKYSPP for helping shape the way he sees the world. “The diversity in my classroom helped me appreciate differences in viewpoints, as well as the differences that exist in a multicultural society like Singapore,” he explains. “The academics at LKYSPP guided me in thinking about policy dilemmas and challenges, which helped me to appreciate and make sense of complex issues. This allowed me to better communicate these issues to our readers,” he says, adding that “My colleagues often say that I am really ‘making good use’ of my postgraduate degree, too — by making GIFs and writing about Pokemon runs at Mothership!”
He credits Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan, Professor Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Associate Professor Suzaina Kadir (Arts and Social Sciences ’91) for being “amazing” teachers and mentors. “Suzaina helped me better understand the role of women and female leaders in Southeast Asian countries, and Kenneth provided his class with an excellent understanding of state-society relations in Singapore,” he explains. “I was extremely honoured when I was invited to moderate a dialogue session with Kenneth on his new book Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power. “Professor Mayer-Schonberger, who is currently teaching at Oxford University, was one of the best teachers I have ever met. He helped me think clearly and critically about internet-related issues, such as Internet governance.”
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
In an industry where strong, editorial-led websites have folded due to lack of funding, Mothership.sg is a happy anomaly, thanks to a wise shift in funding structure. Having calculated in 2015 that they would have to close down within a year if they did not venture out commercially, Mothership.sg was (as mentioned earlier) re-registered as a private limited company in January 2016. Mr Tan and the team professionalised their operations and introduced business and creative services teams.
This shift paid off. “We grew from a social-political blog backed by a social enterprise, to a fully commercial media business. We are now profitable and have expanded our content offerings to become a news and lifestyle media business,” he says, adding that the next challenge is “to grow Mothership to become a platform that helps our readers think critically, reflect constructively, and act ethically on the issues that concern our daily lives.” There are plans to venture beyond Singapore. He sums up his vision for Mothership.sg with this: “If our readers have two hours of free time, they would probably watch Joker. If they have an hour free, they’d watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Netflix. But we hope is that if our readers have 10 free minutes, they would read or watch Mothership.sg content.”
Mr Tan was invited to be the moderator at the inaugural Business China Youth Forum in June 2019. Themed the “The World of Tomorrow: Sustainability starts with you”, the forum, organised by the Business China Youth Chapter, brought together promising students from pre-university and tertiary institutions in Singapore and across the region for a series of discussions on this trending topic.
Text by Theresa Tan. Main photo by Alvin Teo.