The Business of Necessity — What The Co-founder of Mothership Imagines Its Future To Look Like

Martino Tan, who’s also its managing editor reflects, on family, childhood, education, ambition, and lessons learned from the publication’s editorial missteps.
by Zat Astha

Martino Tan

When he was a child, 42-year-old Martino Tan called Yishun his playground. There, the current managing editor and founder of Mothership partook in the early 90s childhood obsession with Magic: The Gathering — “It was a big deal among us kids. I collected a few myself, though I wouldn’t say I was much good at the game” — and playing football after ending the school day at Catholic High.

“Bishan wasn’t as built-up as it is now, so we had more open fields to play football. Once, we even kicked our football onto the train station tracks and had to ask the control station staff for help getting it back,” he recalls with a grin. “Football was a big part of life back then, but I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t exactly top league material.”

Tan’s childhood mirrors so much of mine — like him, my mum used to work but stopped to be a homemaker once I was born. Both our households also survived on just one income in the family. And while our dads had slightly different jobs (his was a security office, mine was a technician), they both earned around $2,000 which isn’t easy when you’re trying to support a family and cover living expenses for two kids.

“I was an A, B, and C student at my A levels — not exactly the cream of the crop.” – AS A JC STUDENT, TAN STRUGGLED IN SCHOOL

And with just one income, our families couldn’t do much by way of leisure. “It’s been pretty tough, honestly,” Tan ruminates. “Travelling, for instance, is out of the question for us — maybe a trip to Johor, but that’s about it. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but I remember it being a happy time.”

Still, even with all the financial shortcomings that come from being in a lower-income family, Tan tells me that his parents were strict when upholding values and tradition — a guiding ethos that he soon learned would affect his life trajectory. “They had high expectations, sure, but what stands out to me is that they were quite consultative. They were always more about guidance than just laying down the law.”

Aspirations vs. realities

As a teenager, Tan spent a fair amount of time flipping through Time Magazine — specifically the publication’s TIME 100 Persons of The Century. “It made me think: Wow, these journalists have a real knack for putting stories together. That’s when I started thinking maybe the media was the path for me.”

But it was also the roaring 90s when engineering and Information Technology were the hot industries of the season, much like AI is today. That’s why when he was in Catholic Junior College, despite an evident love for the Arts, Tan enrolled in the science stream, guided by a pervading belief of the zeitgeist that “more options equalled less need for immediate choices.”

Tan dreamt big, initially aiming for a degree in communications or journalism at a local university. But unfortunately, he struggled in school — a situation exacerbated by his half-hearted decision to be in the science stream. “I was an A, B, and C student at my A levels — not exactly the cream of the crop.”

Needless to say, he couldn’t enrol in any local university for the course he wanted. Tan knew that staying in Singapore might mean taking up an engineering course, a path that would not play to his strengths. This was how he ended up pursuing a degree in media and politics in Australia instead.

That his parents held education in the highest regard made the path overseas easy, even if finances were tight. The pair had little choice but to downsize their home and borrow money from relatives so Tan could further his studies.

“They could’ve easily said — “We don’t have the money, so just go for Engineering” — but they didn’t. Even when I was reeling from my A-level results and feeling pretty lost, every decision about my education was made together with them. They were part of the process, not just bystanders.”

Mothership’s founding story

Today, Tan’s life looks a little different. For one, he no longer stays at Yishun, opting to build a life at Tiong Bahru — “For the hipster vibes,” he explains half-jokingly — with his family of three. The Catholic Junior College alumnus has also been the co-founder and managing editor of Mothership, celebrating a decade this year.

As a writer, I feel it my duty to explain what Mothership is — at least for context. Still, as a Singaporean, I highly doubt that Mothership needs any introduction. But for those of you who aren’t equally familiar, Mothership is a Singapore-based digital media company that approaches news, current affairs, and entertainment for younger audiences in a casual and engaging way. Think BuzzFeed, but hyperlocal.

It’s hard to remember a time before Mothership. Today, the publication is ubiquitous and synonymous with almost instant news, satisfying our primal urge to always be in the know. Mothership has also significantly changed the news landscape in Singapore as speed becomes a top priority in the battle for time, website visits, and precious advertising dollars.

Of course, one can and should question what defines news in 2024. The digital age has since blurred the lines between traditional journalism and newer, more dynamic forms of content delivery.

This evolution raises important questions about the role of media in society and the responsibilities of those who produce and disseminate news. How does the speed and style of news delivery impact public opinion and discourse? In what ways does Mothership’s approach to news challenge or complement traditional media outlets?

And most crucially, how does it navigate the fine line between entertainment and information, ensuring that the pursuit of engagement does not compromise the integrity of the news it delivers?

From civil service to Mothership

Before he founded Mothership, Tan was a regular in the civil service scene, first as a senior manager for media relations in the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts and then as senior manager of online communications for the prime minister’s office.

But even before various stints within the government, Tan worked for a non-governmental organisation — the Singapore International Foundation. “They’re doing meaningful work, and their pay wasn’t too far off from civil service standards. But deep down, I wasn’t fully satisfied.”

Around this time, he secured a scholarship at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). “I got pretty lucky, though,” Tan recalls. “Career-wise, I felt a bit lost, so I figured, why not dive back into my studies and give myself some time to think?”

“Deciding when not to post was as crucial as what to post.” – ON THE LESSONS TAN LEARNED WHILE WORKING IN THE PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE

During his postgrad at LKYSPP, he rediscovered his first love for communications, politics, and policy. Unsurprisingly, after he had finished his studies, Tan joined the civil service, working as an information officer. “I was happy there — I felt like I was making a difference. Plus, I had great bosses who valued what I brought to the table. They often talked about having ‘political sense’ in our role, which is more than just writing speeches; it’s about being in tune with potential issues and understanding the audience on behalf of your principals.”

A few years later, one of Tan’s former bosses, who used to be the press secretary for the Prime Minister, asked him to join the Prime Minister’s Office to kickstart the Prime Minister’s social media.

“It was exciting,” Tan recalls in circumspect, “like being an entrepreneur within the civil service — there was no precedent for this kind of thing here. We looked up how other global and regional leaders managed their social media for insights, aiming to do something unique for Singapore.”

That stint also taught him a lot about leadership and sensitivity to content. “Deciding when not to post was as crucial as what to post. This experience, the lessons from my bosses, and the nuances of engaging an audience through social media all came in handy when I started Mothership about 11 years ago.”

An entrepreneurial journey begins

For Tan, stepping into that role was something he just grew into. “When Mothership first started, it was essentially a two-person socio-political blog. We had the financial backing, but the directive was pretty straightforward. Our managing director told us we had enough funds to keep us going for two years, so it was a bit of a test run to see if we could make something of it.” It would have been good if it had worked out, but if it hadn’t, Tan would have been ‘staring down the possibility of joblessness’.

Tan also entertained the thought that if all else fails, he could return to the civil service — “if they’d even have me, considering Mothership’s cheeky nature,” he explains with a laugh. As a new media outfit, Tan had to contend with many doubters, former civil service colleagues who were questioning the content he was putting out and probing for an “agenda”.

Martino Tan

Mothership’s team when they first launched in 2014. From left, executive director Lien We King, director Edwin Ramesh, editor Belmont Lay, administrative staff Tan Wei Fen, editors Martino Tan and Jonathan Lim, and intern Sally Ong. (Photo: Lianhe Zaobao)

Today, ask Tan if he would do it all over again. His answer is an unequivocal yes, but with caveats. “Having the support of someone willing to invest in the project gave me a unique advantage. Not every entrepreneur gets that kind of start.”

The only person he probably had to convince was his wife, Denise. “We had just gotten married, and leaving a stable path in the civil service for this venture was a big leap. Thankfully, she gave me the permission to pursue this path.”

“What would you do differently?” I probed. “I’d dive into this with even more energy and conviction,” Tan offers. “In the beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty, especially with team dynamics and figuring out how to get things off the ground. If I could give my past self some advice, it would be to go for it with more decisiveness and clarity.

His lack of decisiveness stems from doubt over whether Mothership would be profitable or even take off. “We had funds to last us two years as a social enterprise, but with no real way to bring in revenue, our bank balance was just a ticking clock.”

There was a lot of second-guessing, and those initial months were riddled with hesitancy. He admits that it probably held the team back, slowed their momentum, and maybe even impacted their ability to quickly meet the audience’s growing expectations.

Leadership and talent challenges

“Most people think that dealing with newsmakers is the hardest aspect of running a media outlet like Mothership,” Tan replies when I ask what has been the most challenging part of the job he hasn’t shared with anyone. “But to me, that’s not it. As someone who’s spent over a decade in journalism, navigating those waters comes with the territory. If you find that challenging, perhaps this industry isn’t the right fit.”

The real test, he admits readily, is in mentoring and retaining talent.

Tan knows how this might come across — mundane, obvious. Still, he struggles with helping young team members find meaning in their work. “How do we engage them effectively? How can we help them grow into leaders? How do we groom a new generation of leaders who can carry on the legacy of Mothership?”

“If the publication can’t align with their vision of what journalism should be about, leaving is easy.” – ON WHY TALENT RETENTION IS CHALLENGING WITH YOUNGER EMPLOYEES IN PUBLISHING

The ability and challenge to retain talent within the media space is not a new phenomenon. Tan reckons it’s because the media sector doesn’t offer the same financial rewards as industries like finance or tech.

“This disparity poses a substantial challenge, especially at Mothership, where finding a deeper purpose becomes crucial for our team. They’re making financial sacrifices to stay in a field driven more by passion and purpose than paycheck.” He cites other peers who have since left the media industry for positions in the civil service or tech and finance, highlighting the financial considerations at play.

Tan offers another reason — how the media landscape is perceived. “Young Singaporeans, in particular, come with certain expectations, as they are influenced by how some international media outlets operate. If the publication can’t align with their vision of what journalism should be about, it can be challenging to stay over the long haul,” he theorised. “These are not just operational hurdles but fundamental questions about purpose, contribution, and the impact of our work on society.”

Addressing Mothership’s editorial controversies

I’m about 45 minutes into the interview with Tan and approaching dangerously close to the one hour I was afforded. This conversation did not come easy, involving a flurry of emails over seven months. Thus far, the interview has been cordial and easy. Perhaps now is the time to ask Tan about the incident that prompted me to reach out.

“Tell me about the second breaking of the embargo last October,” I asked Tan point-blank. In October 2023, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) suspended Mothership’s press accreditation after the publication published a story and posted on Facebook news of a rise in water prices a day before the embargo set by the national water agency, PUB.

In a statement, Tan said: “Press accreditation is a serious responsibility and a reflection of our duty to our audiences. We have begun implementing stricter and more precise systems for the handling of embargoed information,”

While incidents like these do happen, this was not Mothership’s first dalliance with breaking embargoes. That would be in March 2022, when the media site broke an embargo on specific details of Goods and Services tax increases during that year’s budget. Mothership published an infographic on its Facebook page with information on the staggered GST increases mere minutes before the embargo was lifted.

On March 25, 2022, in response to the breach, MCI suspended Mothership’s accreditation for six months until August 18. The second embargo breach came a mere 14 months later. A layman would theorise that there’s a bigger problem of editorial leadership at play here.

Navigating press and public

“I’ve tried to be as open as possible about this, even though it’s tricky. I’ve got to tread carefully because it directly affected one of my team members,” Tan explains.

He draws parallels to how things can still go wrong even in organisations in the defence and construction industry that are heavily regulated on the safety side. “Sometimes, things go south because of human error. So, does a mishap mean the whole organisation isn’t safe? Not really. We’ve got processes, but the real question is, why did our team members slip up? Was it something about our culture or something specific to the individual?”

Tan also suggests that the team suffered from burnout, which could have affected how they carried out their duties. Mothership was fresh off an editorial high of covering the recent Presidential Election. “We were out there, trying to cover every angle, competing with the big media houses. It was non-stop. It’s a lot, especially for a small team like ours.”


“Could this burnout be a systemic issue?” I probe. After all, I’m not unfamiliar with the pressures of working in a fast-paced publication like Mothership. I don’t think such speed is healthy, especially when there’s an evident lack of resources — journalists are pushed to cover more than they physically and mentally could, and all for as many eyeballs as possible in service of advertising dollars. Whether it’s worth it is anybody’s guess.

Tan agrees with my analysis. “Looking at my team, those who’ve stuck through the thick of it, I see how demanding the job can get. It’s intense, and frankly, I don’t expect everyone to weather these storms indefinitely.”

He hopes the journalists understand why they need to push themselves to 110 per cent, especially during critical times like a Presidential Election. In appreciation, Tan makes sure the team takes a break after such high-key events. “After the 2023 Presidential Election, the company leaders and I brought the team out for a retreat, but I’m not entirely sure everyone’s bounced back yet.”

“We can’t keep up at that pace all the time,” Tan says. “If we had high-stress events every week, it just wouldn’t be sustainable.” He knows burnout isn’t something to be taken lightly at Mothership. “It’s not a badge of honour. Interestingly, many who’ve left Mothership have ventured into completely different fields. I’m left pondering if the intense conditions here nudged them in new directions.”

The Lin Lin controversy

Of course, like the oft-quoted idiom, when it rains, it pours. Exactly a week before Mothership broke the embargo on the increase in water price, one of Mothership’s founding editors, Belmont Lay, published a story initially titled “Tourist from China feels going to S’pore doesn’t feel like going abroad as Chinese brands galore”.

And while the article is still online, the title has since changed the word “tourist” to “woman”. An editor’s note has also been amended to the top of the story: “A previous version of this article stated that the newsmaker is a tourist and that is inaccurate. The content creator has been living in Singapore for eight years. We sincerely apologise for our error. The article has been amended accordingly, and we have included further clarification from her. We have also reached out to the content creator to apologise.”

The ‘tourist’ moniker referenced Singapore-based Chinese influencer Lin, who created content about life in Singapore. The xenophobic nature of anonymous Singaporeans in the comment section reared its ugly head, with many asking her to go back home while some said that she’s probably well-acquainted with the Geylang red light district, insinuating that she’s a sex worker.

Lin Lin’s attempt to contact Mothership on Facebook and Instagram was subsequently ignored, though attempts were made to change the story’s original title and Facebook caption. In a TikTok video, Lin Lin revealed that her privacy and work life had been breached and compared her situation to being “trapped in a whirlpool while watching public opinions spread like wildfire”.

Reflecting on mistakes and growth

Addressing the controversy head-on, Tan readily admits that the inaccuracy in Mothership’s reporting was evident. “We got it wrong, and we corrected it quickly. But what disappointed me, though, was how we failed to respond adequately after being alerted to our error.”

Tan adds: “My stance is that making mistakes is part of the process, and recognising and owning up to these mistakes is crucial. Apologising and taking responsibility is important; how we handle errors defines us.”

At this juncture, Tanya Ong, Mothership’s head of Strategic Communications and Brand Stewardship, chimed in to clarify and provide more context to the incident.

“We dropped the ball on responding. Lin Lin and others reached out across different platforms to highlight the error, but we didn’t get back to them. This silence on our part understandably upset people, as it looked like we were ignoring their attempts to correct us.”

For her, the disappointment wasn’t merely about the reporting error but also about how the publication has failed to communicate after being called out. “On top of that,” Ong adds, “the situation was made worse because our internal investigations revealed that the team member involved had also breached our standard operating procedures.”

“We got it wrong, and we corrected it quickly.” – ON THE CONTROVERSY WITH INFLUENCER, LIN LIN

It seems like it wasn’t just one issue but a mix of inaccuracies, poor communication, and internal missteps. “Publicly, it might seem like the problem was only about the error and our silence, but internally, we know it’s more than that,” she adds.

I wanted Tan also to address why it took so long for Mothership to resolve the issue. He explains that it took him and his team a month to convince Lin Lin that they were sincere in making things right. “Eventually, she agreed to meet face to face with me twice and discuss the real issue, which, contrary to what many might think, wasn’t the inaccuracy of our report but our failure to respond to her messages.”

Tan then shared with Lin Lin the steps the team had taken internally in light of the issue, including the disciplinary actions that had been enacted. “It was up to her to forgive us, and she did. She chose to move forward, agreeing to inform the public together.”

Evolving media ambitions

After a decade in business, perhaps Tan better understands what a perfect Mothership would look like. Is it one that eschews clickbait stories? Is an ideal Mothership a publication that consistently upholds editorial integrity and factual accuracy above all else — regardless?

“I don’t think there’s a perfect Mothership,” says Tan, although he has a vision of how that ideal would manifest. “I want Mothership to evolve into something more. We’re aiming for a future where we balance innovative content with a business model that ensures our sustainability, all while keeping our core mission of providing accessible and credible content.”

Those are lofty dreams for sure, but, if you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you know that to keep the lights on and to foster innovation through content requires capital. That’s where advertisers come in — a classic dilemma of balancing eyeballs through stories that demand clicks and quality content. An optimist will tell you this balance is possible. Unfortunately, I’m a realist, and I know that publications that don’t fully embrace this partnership will falter.

Martino Tan

The Mothership team with then Presidential candidate, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his wife, Jane Yumiko Ittogi. (Photo: Mothership)

Tan is on the same page as I am: “Surviving and thriving over the years boiled down to embracing sponsored content and articles, which has allowed us to continue offering free content.”

Free content is a crucial pillar in Singapore, where the audience isn’t inclined to pay for news and information. Whereas overseas, publications like the New York Times (NYT), which, according to a Straits Times report, ‘added 300,000 paid digital subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2023’, helped push annual revenue for NYT’s digital subscriptions to above US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) for the first time.

“This reality poses a dual challenge — remaining relevant to our audience while also appealing to our clients, whose support is essential for our financial health. We’ve grown and understand that engaging our stakeholders and clients is as vital as captivating our readers.”

Martino reveals that Mothership is shifting their storytelling model to focus on multimedia content. “It’s a big ask to switch gears and start thinking video-first, especially for teammates whose strengths lie in creating articles, but that’s where the audience’s attention is heading.”

For Tan, the second press accreditation suspension and the Lin Lin incident were a ‘wake-up call that we need to change to stay relevant’. Externally, it might seem like just another pivot, but internally, Tan shares that it’s a massive overhaul of how Mothership thinks about and creates content. “It’s about moving from’ what’s the headline?’ to’ how can we visually tell this story?’ It’s a big leap, but one we need to make.”

‘Matchbox’: beyond digital

Matchbox Studio space. (Photo: Mothership)

A recent office expansion which doubled the size of Mothership’s physical presence meant more space to extend its reach beyond just the online realm. In 2022, they launched a new event space called ‘Matchbox’, designed to spark conversations.

It’s a project that Tan is thrilled to embark, evidenced by the shift in lilt in his voice and the straightening of his back as he leans in to share the various events ‘Matchbox’ has held since its inception.

“Last year, Matchbox was the venue for the season finale of “making .wavs”, a Mothership Instagram series featuring local musicians in Singapore,” he shares. “We also experimented with an event called, “Eco Bazaar” where we collaborated with eco-friendly businesses and partners like ACRES and Cat Welfare Society to set up booths and run workshops.”

On that day, a portion of Mothership’s office was transformed into a makeshift cat adoption centre. The event, which was open to the public, drew over 500 people from diverse backgrounds. “Moving forward, we aim to make this space a creative hub for community engagement, focusing on arts, entertainment, and social purpose. We see it as an extension of our online platform and commitment to fostering a community online and offline.”

Motherships’s Eco-bazaar event. (Photo: Mothership)

As we approached the tail end of our 90-minute interview, I was surprised at Tan’s stamina. Perhaps it helps that he’s genuinely excited about the possibilities that “Matchbox” offered, much like how I would imagine he felt when he first founded Mothership ten years ago.

Today, Tan is inspired by the younger generation. “They engage in activities not just for the sake of it but because these activities are meaningful to them. They’re driven by a genuine desire to effect positive change.”

Contrary to the stereotype that the younger generation is less resilient, Tan has observed the opposite. Young Singaporeans, he tells me, are passionate and determined to pursue their beliefs. “There’s a broader set of values being embraced by them. As a result of that, I’m hopeful that my five-year-old son will grow up in a more compassionate and inclusive Singapore, where life is not solely measured by financial success or career achievements.”

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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