The Power Of Youth

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Martin Tan, co-founder of The Halogen Foundation, believes that every youth deserves to be given resources and opportunities to become a leader.

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Martin Tan talks about how setting up The Halogen Foundation has groomed many young leaders, and inspired countless others to make it a better world for everybody.

By Swapna Mitter

I

t happened in “a moment of madness”. That’s how Martin Tan, 36, describes the birth of the Halogen Foundation, which he co-founded in 2003 to nurture young leaders to care for others.

A decade ago, Tan set up the Young Leaders’ Foundation Singapore (renamed The Halogen Foundation in 2006) with Jeffrey Yip and Matt Martin; the latter being the founder of the original Young Leaders Foundation in Australia.

Halogen is an organisation that inspires and nurtures young leaders through workshops, events, talks and leadership development opportunities. To date, the foundation has reached more than 98,000 youths and over 2,800 parents and educators.

“The vision is to shape young leaders who will not only spend sufficient time leading themselves — which involves a constant need for self-development — but to also think on behalf of others. We want to nurture young leaders who will change the world by focusing on issues they believe in,” says Tan.

At Halogen, this is implemented through leadership development programmes through their approach on inspiration, education and action. Halogen Events, Academy, Projects, Social and Lab form the company’s various departments.

The path of leadership began when Tan was just nine. He joined the Boys Brigade and served in various mentorship roles for 10 years — from squad leader to company sergeant major to officer cadet. While still at school, he launched a creative arts group for youth in church and participated in several mission trips to ASEAN countries to serve the overseas community. At Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Tan was the President of the Film, Sound and Video Society as well coach for the Ngee Ann Football Club.

Grooming Upstarts

“In the last 10 years, we have moved from a purely inspirational outfit that ran a large-scale event — National Young Leaders Day — to an organisation that develops young people. Halogen Labs were established because “we wanted to delve deeper into youth leadership development”. Tan adds, “Better research generates greater awareness among the young on the work they do. We have done a short s tudy on competencies young leaders should develop for the future.”

In the next five years, Halogen will introduce an entrepreneurship track to complement the existing leadership development training. Those who display leadership abilities from an early age will be equipped with entrepreneurial mind-and-skill sets to build or run businesses that bring positive change to communities.

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Left: Wu Shaoyi, 20, in front of a painting honouring his grandfather, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee. This project, ‘Live Our Dreams Community Paintings: A Tribute To Singapore’s Pioneering 10’, was spearheaded by Halogen Foundation Singapore and NGOs Studio You and The Arts House.

Halogen will focus on grooming what they call “Leader-Entrepreneurs” and “Entrepreneur-Leaders”. Leader – Entrepreneurs types are those who are academically stronger and display leadership qualities, often, from an early age. They’re shaped as leaders first then entrepreneurs.

For students who are not as academic, they are first trained to put ideas into actions through various projects and programmes. For such “Entrepreneur-Leaders”, they are coached on core leadership competencies to develop their leadership skills, explains Tan. According to Tan, everyone is a leader.

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Students sticking their wishes for Singapore contributing to OurSG Conversation at The National Young Leaders Day.

“We’ve spent lots of time convincing schools not to place just their prefects in our programmes. We told them we want to nurture and be accessible to all,” he says.

What makes Tan believe in the youth in the first place?

“When I look around me, young people are the catalysts of change. Given the right influence, they have an idealistic streak that makes them great agents of change. If they get enough resources, inspiration and opportunities, I think they can make a huge impact on our society, but we must engender an environment to let them try and fail and try again. They won’t always get it right, but they must be encouraged to keep trying.”


“… young people are the catalysts of change … If they get enough resources, inspiration and opportunities, I think they can make a huge impact on our society, but we must engender an environment to let them try and fail and try again.”


Lessons from Challenges

Of course, Tan has had his fair share of challenges. “Probably one of the most challenging endeavours,” says Tan, “is convincing good people to take a 20% to 50% pay cut to join us.” He considers it fortunate to get “really good people” to form the team running Halogen today.

He says, “It’s really hard wanting to do good. You have to spend all your energy trying to convince people that what you do is important for the future of young people and society. It’s easier convincing people that they need a new smartphone!”

He is against all kinds of labelling and therefore resists being called a change-maker, visionary or a social entrepreneur. “If society chooses to see me that way, then I’ll accept it as a compliment.”

More Good People

There’s no mistaking the passion in his voice when he says that he really believes in what he is doing.


“You need a little foolishness to do great things.”

— Martin Tan


“Starting a charity wasn’t my runof the mill career choice,” says Tan. “I believed it needed good people, and that if we worked hard enough — like we do in the corporate or public sector — we would succeed. To a certain extent, I wanted to prove that it could be done. That you can have a family, and do well in charity as a young person, and not wait until you are retired and have earned millions of dollars to fund your charity work. Only time will tell if I have made a difference, though. I’ve learned that whatever sector you choose to work in, nothing beats hard work. Nothing great is ever achieved without it.”

The Path Ahead for Halogen

Last October, Tan stepped down as CEO of Halogen Foundation because “it was the right thing to do”. The time had come to pass the mantle to someone younger as Halogen is an organisation for and by the youth. It was planned as part of leadership renewal, explains Tan and “everyone knew I was going to leave once we’ve completed 10 years”. However, he remains on the board of directors.

Tan says the vision remains the same — to influence a generation of young people who will lead themselves and others.

CEO successor, Kong is inspired by Tan’s optimism and positive outlook. He says, “We always speak to young people; the story of Halogen will hopefully inspire budding social entrepreneurs and social leaders.” Kong first volunteered with Halogen from 2005 to 2008 subsequently worked fulltime from December 2011.

Last year, Halogen introduced several modules on ‘Digital Leadership’ to coach students to harness technology through social media to influence others. Pearl Pang, the chief of staff explains, “Our in-house research Lab tracks trends in pedagogy and topics that interest youth. In addition, the ‘Think Tank’ community gathers teachers passionate about youth leadership development to exchange perspectives and experiences with one another.”

A Bright Future

Tan is not sure where his next career move will take him. “I see myself more as a mentor to young people wanting to create new programmes or organisations that bring positive change to our community. I hope to continue to inspire young people both in Singapore and around the world to the change landscape around us. I think young people are beginning to realise that monetary success isn’t everything in life.”

And what about the madness that started it all?

“You need a little foolishness to do great things. A more acceptable word is ‘audacity’,” Tan says with a smile. “We need the foolishness to believe we are the ones who can change the world.”

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Martin Tan (first row in grey jacket) with staff and volunteers at their annual flagship event National Young Leaders’ Day.


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