Martin Tan – Halogen Foundation

Martin Tan – Halogen Foundation

“We want to repay the debt we owe the previous generation by serving the next.”

Martin Tan
Co-Founder and Executive Director of Halogen Foundation Singapore

Age: 35

Halogen Foundation Singapore is a youth leadership development organization that aims to nurture and inspire socially responsible young people.  Through workshops, events, talks, camps and various other programmes, Halogen targets youths and their educators, helping to foster an environment conducive to the positive growth of the students. Recent years have seen Halogen expanding into research; all of which goes into crafting a curriculum that best suits the needs of the youth. Speakers at Halogen’s events have ranged from Ho Kwon Ping, the executive chairman of the Banyan Tree Group, to singer-songwriter Tanya Chua. Despite the comprehensiveness and diversity of its programmes, the organization operates with a single goal: building young leaders who will change the world.

Martin with the Halogen team

Martin with the Halogen team

For all its large-scale events, Halogen’s old premises in Old School on Mount Sophia Road (they have since moved to *SCAPE) are fairly modest. The surroundings are spartan, with cubicles and tables much like those in average corporate offices. Perhaps the only physical indications of the work being done here are the inspirational posters that line the walls and cabinets, with mottos extolling the virtues of responsibility and leadership. Martin himself is articulate and charismatic, exuding the confidence and self-assurance that has so defined him as a great public speaker. The atmosphere in the office is one decidedly different from those of other corporate outfits. It is warm, homely even, and as one of the staff members announces a bit of good news to Martin, the entire office erupts in cheer, hooting and clapping. The happiness is infectious and genuine, and as his eyes sweep across the room, Martin is beaming with a certain satisfaction. He is unabashedly proud of the dedicated people who have come to work with him, and the organization that he has built – all this for good reason. Walking the talk is no mean feat, but it is a feat that Martin Tan has definitely accomplished.

What is Halogen about, and what does it aim to do?

Halogen is a youth leadership development organisation. We are an IPC (Institute of Public Character) charity, and we registered in Singapore in 2003. We’re not a youth leadership training company – training is one thing that we do, but we’re more interested in youth leadership development. The key difference between development and training is that you can run programme after programme in schools to “train” these students, but you really don’t take them on a journey. What we want to do is take young people on a leadership journey to make them become better leaders. And one of the key aspects of leadership development is making sure it is available and accessible for every single young person. That means that it cannot be priced too expensive – we charge the bottom-most denominator at $5 to $10 per student, which is fairly affordable for the quality of the programmes we bring in.

What we’re aiming to do as an organisation is inspire and influence a generation of young people who will lead themselves and others well. What we want to see is a generation of young people who will practise self-leadership, who will understand that it is important to know their own character, their values, and their strengths and weaknesses. Who will know what they stand for. That first, and then have the skill set and competency to be able to lead others well. I truly believe the future of the world is in the hands of the young people today. They’re not just leaders of tomorrow, they’re leaders of today. We have a saying in our organisation: we are about building young leaders who will practically change the world in issues they believe in. We don’t believe that young people like to be told what to do. But if young people discover their values for themselves, if young people discover their own beliefs and passion, the chance of them doing something with it is a lot higher than if someone told them to pick rubbish or visit an old folks’ home. It must be passion that comes from within.

I truly believe the future of the world is in the hands of the young people today. They’re not just leaders of tomorrow, they’re leaders of today.

So you mean you help these young people discover their own values for themselves rather than dictating what these values are.

That’s right. Of course, we have our own values. We have our own four corporate values. Firstly, people. We value people regardless of race, language or religion, regardless of rank or status. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re from an elite school or neighbourhood school; we value every single individual as individuals of great worth. They will receive the same amount of attention and input.

We value integrity. We say that integrity is a hallmark of great character, and great character is a hallmark of great leadership. To us, that is important. We tell young people that making ethical decisions is important as a leader. Being true to yourself and true to others is an important part of our leadership.

The third value we have is responsibility. We say it’s important to be responsible not just to yourself, but also to others. It’s important to be responsible to your community, and responsible to your planet. Being socially and environmentally responsible is a big part of who we are.

The last value is generosity. We say you can be generous with your money – that’s actually the easy part –your time and your talent. The last 2 things usually cost us more than money. Donating to a cause is great, but if your affinity with the cause stops at the phone call, or the moment you donate, then I think we’re missing the point.

We really want people who are generous with their time, resources and talents. The staff members here at Halogen take a 20% to 50% pay cut when they join us. They are being generous with their resources. Our speakers, who make tons and tons of money, who would probably charge other clients 5000 to 10, 000 dollars to speak, give us their time. They speak for free. So generosity is a big part.

How did this all begin?

We started in 2003. My co-founder Jeffery Yip and I started the organization with another friend, Matthew Martin, who was the founder of the original organization back in Australia. The original Halogen was started in Sydney, Australia in 1997. Matt was going around schools doing training sessions, and he realized it was impossible for him to grow the organization by himself. So he gathered everybody together and started an event called the National Young Leaders Day, which we still run today. This was run in 5 different cities in Australia. In 2001, he started it in New Zealand, and it ran in 4 cities there. In 2003 I got to know Matt, and we became really good friends. Jeffery was there staying with his family, looking for youth activism projects, and he felt that this organization might be something that Singapore would find interesting. He met me, and he suggested working on this together. At that time I was looking for a youth programme that made sense. So I went to see New Zealand, I liked what I saw, and we started our first Young Leaders’ Day in October 2006. We never really looked back since. It all started with a fax machine. The very first purchase we made as an organization was a fax machine. 500 dollars. That’s it.

Is Halogen Foundation here to rectify a problem with our youth today? What might that problem be?

I don’t think our goal is to rectify any problem with Singaporean youths. Many people say that our youths are apathetic, that they are just partygoers, and have a laissez faire attitude towards everything. There are a lot of labels we put on young people. The reality is that adults are not that much different. Look at the current situation with the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude. Those are not kids. Those are adults. So I don’t think I’m here to rectify a youth problem, but to address concerns in Singapore. I would like young people to have a much larger worldview than just themselves. What we want to do is inspire young people to do a whole lot more with their lives than just trying to pursue material success. What we want to do is paint in the canvas of their mind all the things that are possible. If they want to be an architect, we want them to be the best architect in the world – we want them to build the nicest, most spanking, most inspiring structure that meets the needs of the community. And it can be done; it has been done.

So we’re not trying to rectify a problem. We’re trying to show these young people possibilities. We’re trying to tell them that leaders make a difference, and it’s not just about their aspirations, but a shared aspiration. We’re trying to inspire possibilities.

What is the greatest challenge you faced while setting this organization up, and how did you overcome it?

I don’t think I’ve ever overcome the greatest challenge we have faced. Our biggest challenge is having sufficient financial resources to continue what we’re doing on a long-term basis. Next year we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary. We’ve gone through some ups and downs; we’ve been through a time when we had to close shop, but we’ve also been through times when we had sufficient resources to start new programmes. We’re a not for profit charity, so we’re not here to make money. But we do need money. Our biggest struggle is to convince people that youth leadership development is and can be a worthy charity to support. I don’t have a crying kid in front of my marketing material. I don’t cater to only the disadvantaged. I still reach many of them, but I don’t like the idea of labelling people. I don’t like the idea of creating a programme just for disadvantaged youth. Because the moment you do that you start on the wrong foot.

With the volunteers and staff at Halogen's annual event, National Young Women Leaders' DayWe train 18,000 students here. And in that 18, 000, are there marginalized youths? Absolutely. Are there students from privileged backgrounds? Yes. We have youths from neighbourhood schools and elite schools, from the normal technical stream and the gifted education programme. I think we live in a world of labels. But I would rather democratize leadership, such that it’s not just the elite or academically smart students who get the opportunity to go through a quality leadership programme. Every single student should get this opportunity to realize that they have so much within them to make a difference.

So the biggest challenge is still convincing donors that this is a worthwhile charity. When donors come and see what we do, they’ll be sold. But we need to find donors who are prepared to take time and come down and see what we do. It might be a lot easier if I used an orphan or a crying child, but we don’t have that. And neither do we use a lot of sob stories to raise money. That’s just not us. We tell things as they are. Most charities would probably do things a little differently, but I don’t think there’s a need to change if you know why you’re doing it. I was just telling my staff that we should not change our programme to meet the needs of our funders. Because if not, we are in danger of losing our identity. We must find funders who believe in us, and that’s hard.

Do you sometimes feel disillusioned with your work?

Absolutely. Everyone has doubts. Especially when you wonder if next week you have enough money to pay your staff; especially when you wonder if there really is a need for your organization. I always ask myself: If Halogen closed down today, would people feel the impact? Every leader goes through a sense of disillusionment. But I overcome it by waking up. I wake up and I realize that it needs to be done. And I just do it. And because I work with young people, I see enough of that sparkle in a person’s eye that makes me feel as if I’ve touched another life.

We’re trying to give young people something that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to experience. I meet a lot of older people who go through leadership development courses, and they always say that they wish they had learned all this at a younger age. And since we all say that, why not just take action? Teach younger people, give them a leg up. So that they become better leaders in the future, and the world becomes a better place.

I’ve dedicated the prime of my life to this. I’m 35 this year, I started when I was 26. Whilst most of my friends are making it big in the corporate world, this is what I do. When I first started, many people told me not to waste my time. They told me to make money first, get a good job, get a good career. Make enough money and come out in my 50s to do what I want to do. You have to understand that 10 years ago, the charity sector was very different from what it is today. But I wanted to tell young people that there is a career in the charity sector. I have 2 daughters and a wife. I’d probably get paid twice the amount I am currently earning if I work outside. But you know what? In exchange for greater meaning, why not? I like to walk the talk. It’s not easy.

Every leader goes through a sense of disillusionment. But I overcome it by waking up. I wake up and I realize that it needs to be done. And I just do it.

How are you different from the person you were when Halogen first began?

I had a strong sense of idealism; I still do. I believe in the goodness of people. And I don’t think that has changed. I’ve been bitten, betrayed and let down many times, but those are life experiences, and no matter where you go you will always face that. What has changed is my perspective on what is realistic and what is not. I think there’s only so much you can fight a system to get results. Therefore, perhaps the best way is to understand the system and work around the system. Fighting the system and fighting for justice often gives you a sense of accomplishment, but sometimes that is achieved at the expense of the people that you’re trying to help. So I learned early that it’s not about me. I’ve learned that the outcome is more important than how I feel. We don’t get benefits, the limelight or anything, but it’s really perfectly fine. Because we’ve achieved the final outcome.

So from a 26 year old to a 35 year old, I’ve realized that some things are not as important as they seem. There are many more things in life that are more important than work. My family, my children, my staff, and the goal and vision of this organization. Those things are so much more important than how big we are, how successful we are, or how much in the media we are.

Is there truly a talent crunch in Singapore?

I don’t think so. Actually, you know what? We don’t give ourselves enough credit. I think Singaporeans are creative. Obviously, not everyone is creative. Not everyone in America is creative. It’s always a small group of people who are creative enough, who have fun doing things, who dream big and run organizations. I think on a per capita basis we’re no different from the rest of the developed world. We’re just small, with a small population. I think we’re fine as a country.

Martin in action at Nanyang Junior College

Martin in action at Nanyang Junior College

Our problem is that we’re a risk-averse country. The fear of failure is very real in Singapore. As things become more expensive the risk gets higher. The fear of missing the boat, the fear of not being able to purchase property like your friends. I think that stifles creative people, entrepreneurs, idealists. It prevents them from doing something. There’s a huge difference between a culture, an environment, and a person. We tend to focus on the person, but I don’t think so. I think we have enough people. I’ve seen enough people who can, are willing to do. But it cannot be and it should not be just people who can afford to do so. I see many charities run by people who come from very well to do families. And I think that’s great. I encourage them, and tell them that they don’t have to worry. They, of all people, should do it.

But I come from a lower middle-income family. My first job paid me 500 bucks. My first official pay check was 1400 bucks. I got married with only 500 dollars in my bank account. I don’t belong to that world. But yet, Halogen is celebrating its 10th anniversary. That being said, the risk of failure is still very high. And we don’t celebrate failure as much as we celebrate success. I think the issue is more with the culture than the people. I think the day that we celebrate failure in the way that we should, the day that we pick people up from their failures and have a slightly more relaxed bankruptcy law, we will see more entrepreneurs. I have the faith that Singaporean people can.

Who or what inspires you?

My father passed away when I was 17 years old, so for a large part of my working life I didn’t have a dad to go to as most kids did. But I had four men in my life. They were national leaders in the Christian world, senior pastors who took an interest in my life and mentored me for many years. They would always make time for me when I called, they would scold me the way a dad would. I will always be indebted to these four men. And I can do what I do today because they made time for me.

With regards to why I’m doing what I’m doing: my inspiration stems from seeing leadership fail at the highest level. I’ve seen godly men in church fight with each other over power. I’ve seen character flaws of people whom I respect and look up to. And I’ve realized that humans are only human. When you look at inspirational role models, it is not just their success that you must look at. We must also look at their failures. I learned a lot of lessons when I was growing up, seeing some leaders fail. And maybe in a morbid way that really inspired me. We have to start teaching people from a young age that leaders must make a difference, and leaders will fail. It’s about how they rise up again.

At Halogen, we want to repay the debt we owe the previous generation by serving the next.  I think that’s my inspiration. To do for others what others have did for me.

We are often told that “dreamers” don’t have a place in the reality of this world. What do you think separates the change makers from the dreamers?

I’ll give you my take. It’s just hard work. It’s nothing but hard work. Changing the world is hard work. Nothing great was ever accomplished without hard work. Our problem is that we focus so much on the eventual success, we don’t spend as much time on the journey people take. We celebrate the success of Steve Jobs, but we don’t usually talk about his failures. The reality is that it’s just pure hard work. People who accomplish things are people who decide they want to put in that effort. You work 18-hour days, you dip into your own savings to fund the organization, you quarrel with your wife, you don’t get as much time with the kids as you’d like to. This is part and parcel of the sacrifice.

I think conviction is an important part of it. There’s a 3-question process that we use in training. What is your greatest strength, what is the world’s greatest need and what is your greatest passion? If you can align these three things, then you have found the perfect fit. But even if you have the strongest conviction, if you are not prepared to work hard, then you won’t achieve anything. It’s the same everywhere else. In school, in work, in the corporate world. Never treat the charity sector differently from the corporate sector. It’s just a job. But it’s a job that I enjoy. Same principles, same viability. Actually I think the reverse should happen. I think every company should be socially responsible. Everybody should run with the ethos of charity. I still make money, I still return dividends to my investors. But I will and should never have to create a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) project just to show that I’m doing good, because my company must do good. To succeed in life, nothing less than hard work will do.

– Profiled by Natalee Ho