SINGAPORE: It was midweek, and the cafe near Rice Media’s current office at Jalan Besar was quiet, cosy and suitably sheltered from the impending storm threatening outside.
I was early, and nursing a cup of coffee when Mark Tan, founder and CEO of the news media start-up, sauntered in and looked around. We’ve never met, having corresponded primarily through the somewhat archaic SMS platform, so I stood up to get his attention.
Decked out in a clean white shirt, sleeves folded, and light brown slacks, Tan looked like a working professional on his day off. He was, after all, a practising lawyer until about two years ago when he officially started Rice Media.
He has kept a relatively low profile though: This interview is only the second he has agreed to participate in after Rice was founded, he said.
His low-key manner belies the start-up’s ambitious mission statement that reads: “Rice is Asia’s alternative voice. From sex workers to politicians, contemporary art to street food, we bring fresh perspectives and bold commentary on everyday life in Asia."
Its early blog posts articulated what they hoped to deliver. One of its earliest works, for instance, was an in-depth article on former Singapore Idol contestant Steven Lim, which looked beyond the public persona of the wannabe celebrity to the actual person lurking beneath.
Then there was the March 2018 piece on an American pastor, Lou Engle, who was invited to speak at a Christian conference but crossed the religious fault line with his insensitive comments against the Muslim community.
INTENT ON BROADENING PEOPLE’S UNDERSTANDING
Clearly unafraid to wade into socially sensitive territory, Tan said the decision to do so is always to “broaden understanding”.
Referring to the Lou Engle article, the 35-year-old said to broaden people’s understanding meant it had to be critical and get people “who might not necessarily agree” with the subject matter. “That’s where the provocation might come from, but we don’t start off with the intention of provoking.”
He added that Rice wanted to give the public insight into what happens at many of these religious events and conferences and, more importantly, start a discussion on where the line is when it comes to preaching certain values or ideas.
“In the case of religion, we are often told to be wary of Islamic extremism,” Tan said. “But as our coverage of this story showed, this is not limited to any one religion as any of us can fall into this sort of misunderstanding.
“No religion or ideology is immune to extreme views and we felt that it was important to educate the public on this matter.”
It doesn’t just deal with politically or socially sensitive topics; a similarly critical eye is cast on cultural issues.
One recent piece looked at the spelling, or misspelling, of Malay words among different races in Singapore.
“The point of this piece wasn’t to criticise the spelling mistakes, but to understand why this phenomenon exists,” Tan said, adding that in order to do this, it had to critically analyse how and why the various ethnic groups misspell the work “jelak”.
This is still a strategy being fine-tuned and he admitted to not knowing if it’s going to work but, for now, it is.
He also pointed out how many independent media outlets “lose their way” because they take a provocative approach.
He identified Stomp, a citizen journalism website started by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), as an example of doing “controversy the wrong way”.
“If I watch some guy getting punched in Geylang right, then I mean, what am I supposed to do with it? You feel angry already, (and) then … ?” Tan elaborated.
“I think the value they’re creating is limited.”
He added: “I’m not saying we’re better, OK, we’re not! But we try to be. I think if your brand’s DNA is built around insight and critical thought, it’s a better foundation.
“Ultimately, it’s like our north star; when we see something that’s controversial, then the question is: ‘What’s the point (of looking at it)?’”
FROM BLOG TO BUSINESS
Yet, this two-year-old upstart entity with lofty ambitions was borne from humble origins, namely Tan's desire for a creative outlet.
“I’ll wake up with a shower thought, and if it grinds up my gears that day I’ll write about it,” the founder said with a laugh. This was back in 2015 to 2016, when it was just a pet project for him and one of the current editors at Rice.
He said it was only about mid-2017 when the hobby became a full-time gig.
“One of my partners in Rice runs a creative agency, so they came up with the branding and the website,” he recounted.
It was also around this time that he met an angel investor who was a kindred spirit.
“We happened to meet an angel investor who liked what we were doing. It’s like ‘hey take my money, let’s do something’, and I was like: ’Ya, sure, why not?’”
The unnamed investor poured in S$300,000 in that round, allowing Rice to start recruiting and expanding its operations.
Today, it has about 12 full-time employees including seven in the editorial team, four in production and one account executive. It is racking up an average of about 500,000 unique visitors a month, the CEO said.
“We’ve actually just closed another round of funding … It’s just a private round; my investors, they don’t want to their names to be in the papers. But it’s a private round through some individuals… who I guess are passionate about magazines and content,” Tan said, adding these investors are Singaporeans or Singapore Permanent Residents.
He declined to say how much was raised, except to say that the figure was more than the initial investment.
ON REGULATOR’S RADAR?
Pushing the boundaries in reporting sensitive topics tend to attract attention from not just readers, but local authorities too.
But Tan said he hasn’t been called up for a chat with the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) yet.
He did point out that Rice’s audience is “far smaller” than Mothership’s, another local media entity that was asked by the then-Media Development Authority to register under the online class licensing scheme in 2015.
The website is “not as political” as others like The Online Citizen or now-defunct The Middle Ground either, he added.
“In fact, politics to us isn’t … it’s only interesting or relevant insofar as when it crosses over to certain social issues. When certain social issues become politicised then we might take an interest,” Tan said.
“Personally, I don’t really have an interest getting into the whole ‘Are we pro-Establishment or anti-Establishment’ (conversation). That isn’t really why I started the brand for.”
KEEPING THE PARTY GOING
In the end, Rice is still a business, and a relatively young one at that, and Tan is intent on creating a sustainable model so it can continue producing what it deems “good content”.
He shared that the operation is entirely funded by native advertising, or in other words, branded content. And it is a challenge to find the balance between the two.
Right now, the majority of published content is still original, he said, but should the ratio swing to, say, 50 per cent of all content is branded, it will be a problem. “Your audience might not like it.”
Similarly, there’s also the challenge of making sure one’s branded content is as good as the original ones - and this, Tan said, is difficult to achieve because there are more stakeholders involved.
“They might be like: ‘Oh you shouldn’t use this word because it’s controversial’,” he said.
The media start-up owner is realistic enough to recognise that this industry is not for those looking to make a lot of money.
“I mean, we’re not rolling in dough la, put it that way,” Tan said. “My reasons for doing this is we want to create good content, and we want to earn enough money so we can continue creating good content. That’s it.
“If you don’t do this, then the party will stop.”
This profile on Rice Media is part of a wider series looking at Singapore's alternative online news scene. You can read more about the industry here, or the other profiles on Critical Spectator and Observer+.