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Post date: Jul 06, 2012 2:2:18 AM

You don't have to be somebody to do something

Leadership is about influence, not position, and every youth can be a leader, Mr Martin Tan, co-founder of Halogen Foundation and head of the Young PAP school, tells Susan Long.

The Straits Times

6 July 2012

Despite working with irreverent youth here for 10 years, Mr Martin Tan did a double take when 17-year-old student Reuben Wang lashed out at Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in an expletive-ridden blog post, accusing the minister of dodging questions at a recent pre-university seminar.

Mr Tan wondered: 'Is this a generation that has lost all respect for institutions and authority?'

Are young people today overly reliant on an efficient government expected to provide all the solutions? Having grown up with a social compact defined in economic terms, whose fault is it that they now view governance in 'purely transactional' terms such that 'their loyalty is to no one except themselves'?

The 35-year-old co-founder and executive director of Halogen Foundation Singapore, a non-profit organisation which yearly trains some 18,000 youngsters aged 10 to 25 to be leaders, admits he was 'very disturbed' by the outburst.

Unfortunately, many young digital natives like Reuben, who has since apologised to DPM Teo, are learning the 'concept of consequence' the hard way, he observes.

A lot of what is happening today, he says, is 'just young people being young people', talking back to elders, as they have done through the ages. What have changed are the manifestation and magnitude. 'In the past, when I wrote something on an autograph book, it was between me and my friend; maybe four other people read it. Now 4,000 people worldwide read it,' he says.

But he's not about to give up on his young charges. He still encourages them to disagree - respectfully - because 'when you do that, you are listened to more'. And he's still trying to change the world, one lackadaisical youth at a time. He dreams of a world where the young speak up fearlessly and channel their energy into things that make the lives of others better.

He knows he is up against a worldwide web of distractions jostling for attention. 'My competition is not another training company or another leadership programme. My competition is Zynga, Facebook, Apple and Coca-Cola. Not because we are in the same league as them but because every one of us is after one commodity - the mindshare of young people. The amount of time young people spend playing Angry Birds - if they are able to put that into finding a solution for the community, I have just won one more person,' he says.

As young people worldwide Occupy Wall Street, mount the Arab Spring revolution and protest across Europe, he notes that they enjoy unprecedented opportunities today to make a difference. 'There are so many grants, organisations and programmes available for young people to realise their dreams today. I tell them you have the world at your fingertips and there isn't one skill you can't learn on YouTube.'

He also tells them to stop cribbing about the Singapore Government giving so many scholarships to foreign students.

'I tell them: 'Guys, you have no idea how lucky you are. You now have the ability to build relationships with scholars from China, India and different Asean countries. When you grow up, it will be a huge advantage for you because they will be running businesses or in senior government positions back in their countries. You will build networks that you will look back on and be grateful for.'' The reception he gets is usually warm, he says, adding that 'young people will listen if they feel listened to'. But sometimes they roll their eyes and some have labelled him a 'bigot' in their blogs.

Action, not position

A POSTER he has had since 14 that says 'Leadership is action, not position' hangs on the wall of his office at *Scape in Orchard Link.

The man who attended neighbourhood schools - De La Salle and Hai Sing High School - before going to Ngee Ann Polytechnic to study film, then doing a distance-learning degree in mass communications, does not believe leadership has an academic quality to it. 'Leadership is not about position; it's about influence. Anyone can be a good influence whether he is a CEO, student or bus driver,' he maintains.

Back in his time, young people were being trained only for 'positional leadership' in uniformed groups, to lead a squad or run camps. The Boys' Brigade officer cadet spent a large part of his youth 'wanting to be somebody, thinking that I could do something only if I was a prefect or class monitor'. When he was not selected, he just 'cruised along'.

He remembers there was less academic stratification back then. The only time he felt 'looked down upon' was when he attended a junior college talk and the principal asked those not from elite schools 'not to waste time and leave'.

'It made me want to prove people like these wrong,' recalls the third son of a construction equipment trader and army second warrant officer.

He has moved house a total of 13 times in 35 years - from Queenstown military housing, to HDB flats in Hougang and Redhill, to a Rifle Range Road house - due to upgrading and downgrading when his father went bankrupt and died of a heart attack when he was 17.

He squeezed in several lifetimes working as a construction worker, data entry clerk, waiter and wedding photographer during the school holidays. One older brother works as an air steward, the other is a car salesman.

At 10, he became a Christian and got heavily involved with the 700-strong RiverLife Church. After national service, he was a youth worker with the church for four years, completing his theology studies in New Zealand and heading its creative arts ministries and community services arm.

In 2003, at the age of 26, he started the Singapore chapter of Young Leaders Foundation, which is headquartered in Australia and was later renamed Halogen, to run leadership courses in schools here. It was also the year he got married and started RMIT University evening classes paid for by the church.

A year later, as Halogen took off, he left the employ of the church. He was 28 when his first-born Mattheus came prematurely, weighing all of 555g and dying in his arms shortly after birth.

'In every tragedy like this, it's your response to it that sets you on a path. We were fortunate that we had enough faith to be able to move on, despite unanswered questions,' says the father of two girls, aged four and six, who is married to Daphne, a housewife.

The incident reframed what success was for him. The honorary secretary of the National Family Council and deputy chairman of Marriage Central feels businesses should do more to promote family as the No.1 priority and that bosses need to lead the way.

He makes it a point to leave work on the dot at 6pm to set the tone for his staff of 12. After dinner, he plays with his children, puts them to bed, then resumes work till 2am.

Halogen, which started with a grant of $8,000 from its Australian headquarters, will turn over about $1 million this year. About 70 per cent comes from training revenue and 30 per cent from government, corporate and private donors. He also owns Tea Cosy, an angel-themed cafe at Plaza Singapura.

He is a young man in a hurry because his father and grandfather both died young of heart attacks.

'My goal in life is to live past 50 and to keep my heart healthy. Every year after that will be a bonus. So I just want to do as much as I can,' he says. 'I want to see my daughters grow up, walk them down the church aisle and pass their hands to the 'jerk' in front.'

Man in white

HE JOINED the Young PAP (YP), the youth wing of the People's Action Party, in 2008, when it was possibly the 'least popular' thing to do, especially to stridently anti-establishment close friends.

But he says unflinchingly: 'I like what the PAP is doing. I couldn't see traction from the opposition side.'

Since 2009, he has been heading the YP School, in its quest to turn new party recruits into activists and leaders.

He has structured more formal, quarterly training for its members, aged below 40, and introduced content like marriage and bankruptcy law and social media engagement to help them better navigate Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS).

He sees his role as helping activists 'see both sides of the story to empower them to ask questions and think through issues so that when the time comes, they know how to make the right decisions' and won't be 'swayed by popular opinion, fear or hype'.

The biggest lack of this generation, he feels, comprises critical thinking skills and the ability to 'toggle' opposing views.

'We're good in researching the right answers, settling on a hypothesis, then pushing our argument through. But we don't spend enough time looking at it from the opposite perspective and figuring out the rationale on the other side.

'The same thing is happening on both sides - the PAP feels everything the opposition says is wrong and the opposition feels everything the PAP says is wrong. So how do we engender a discussion where we can agree to disagree but still have a cup of coffee together?'

This is the kind of society he hopes to see. He says he and his pals argue spiritedly over politics, then go out for a beer.

'The more our society is able to embrace differences, the better we become,' says the YP executive committee member who helped Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin at his MPS for two years.

So is he going to be presented as part of the next general election slate?

He demurs, refusing to say more beyond: 'If you work towards being fielded in politics here, you're asking for trouble.'

He says he is now focused on building Halogen into an enduring institution. 'People don't build institutions any more; we lack the patience to see things built over time. Today's trend is to work a couple of years at building something, hype it up, then sell it for tonnes of money. I don't subscribe to that.'

He laments that most of today's major institutions were built decades ago. 'Where are the Red Cross, YMCAs and Salvation Armies of today? We don't see them because people are no longer building institutions; they are building companies and consumer products. We have become so inward-looking that everything we buy and we do today is for 'me' - the next iPhone, the next Samsung.'

His dream is that Halogen will endure at least for the next 50 years. 'If I'm still around, I will love to be invited back and say I played my part in building this.'