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Who’s fueling the Mothership?

By Howard Lee

When the Media Development Authority announced that it will be requiring new political website Mothership.sg to register under the Broadcasting Act, there were no doubt many eyes that turned to the website to see what the fuss was about.

Indeed, the website contained content that cannot possibly be mistaken for anything other than political. A discussion about Singapore's diplomatic position in the Arctic Route, various posts about the Prime Minister and other political figures, even more posts about how to feel good about being a Singaporean – even if you were to mistake it for a trendy website offering self-help moral boosters, the political slant is unmistakable.

Clearly, the Straits Times noted as much when it first reported on Mothership, and popped its owners that eventual question, to which the team responded yes, they will register with MDA if requested to do so. Coincidence, or expecting the eventuality?

But a closer look at the website uncovers a fair bit more than the openly-cited threat of foreign ownership. In fact, readers of the Mothership have a lot more to worry about than foreigners using it a a proxy to skew the political discussion.

Fuel in, fuel out?

A passing glance would immediately reveal that the website has virtually no advertising whatsoever. For a site that has existed for seven months, this fact begs the question of what, or who, is sustaining the running costs of the website.

Mothership boasts a total staff strength of five – three editors, an administrative assistant and, for the moment, one intern – and also cites in its ranks many other contributors who, by all counts, seem to be working full-time for the website. Even assuming that these contributors are volunteering, the website is still keen on hiring a researcher/writer and a project manager.

By TOC's conservative estimates, such heavy staffing would easily account for about $150,000 in annual expenditure.

Furthermore, the website owners have declared their intention to obtain “full accreditation as a media (sic) in Singapore”. For a website barely on its feet, in a media environment where emerging news websites are hardly making much, that is fairly aggressive expansion. Mothership is either living on a borrowed dime, or has some serious financial backing.

That backing would presumably come in the name of Project Fisher-men Ltd, identified as the social enterprise that operates Mothership and reported to be chaired by veteran civil servant Philip Yeo.

That alone might raise a few eyebrows. Social enterprises, while generally not for-profit, would expect their investments to demonstrate some inclination towards being self-sustaining. At the moment, it appears that Project Fisher-men is acting more like a trust fund for Mothership.

However, when asked earlier by TOC, editor Belmont Lay indicated that the website was funded by executive director Lien We King. Lien last hit the news as the fund manager who helped former Foreign Minister George Yeo collect forms for the 2011 Presidential Election, when Yeo was considering if he should run for the Presidency.

The inconsistency is odd to say the least, and unnecessarily evasive. It is unclear what influence Philip Yeo would have on the website, beyond for funding purposes. Philip Yeo is listed as part of the editorial team, but has not contributed any articles since the website started. Similarly, neither has his fellow contributor, former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo.

Inconsistent relationships?

In fact, there has been some inconsistencies in how the Mothership team has publicly acknowledged Mr George Yeo.

Early this year, in attempting to seek students to fill internship positions at Mothership, editor Belmont Lay was listed as the contact person in an email to varsities that indicated Yeo to be one of the founders of the website.

Mothership is a youth organisation founded by ex-Foreign Minister Mr George Yeo. They promote social consciousness among youths in Singapore through various volunteer projects with charities and welfare organisations. They are looking for interns to help with their upcoming media platform, Mothership Post,” said the email.

This was also confirmed by head of media business Martino Tan, who identified George Yeo to be a founder in his professional profile page online.

Focused on how the youth view community service, Mothership provides accessible, actionable and creative platforms for Singaporeans to get involved... Mothership's founder is former Foreign Minister of Singapore Mr George Yeo,” Tan's profile announces.

It would be fairly unusual for a founding member to not be involved in the beginning stages of a website, where the most guidance is needed. Judging by the content, it might also be reasonable to believe that the slant on foreign affairs is managed by George Yeo. So, why the different representation on the website?

Foreign funding issue, or a lot more unknowns?

When MDA revealed that it has asked Mothership to register, the statement given was similar in vein as that for The Independent Singapore and Breakfast Network: Mothership is owned by a commercial entity, hence susceptible to foreign funding and influence, and must therefore be registered and make the necessary declarations.

However, this blind adherence to commercialisation seems to have created its own blind-spot. It appears that the founders of the website are the same as those running the website, yet do not contribute content. There is also no clarity on who funds the website, and neither is it clear that all individuals funding the website have been declared.

What is clear is that there is very little about Mothership that is completely clear. To ease the minds of the reading Singapore public, perhaps Mothership or MDA should share a little more on where the website receives its funding from, and more importantly, whose agenda it is pushing.

To that end, TOC has earlier asked editor Belmont Lay and former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo the questions raised here, but we have yet to receive a reply at time of publishing. We hope to include them once received.

Thus far, we might be led to believe that registration under the revised Broadcasting Act has not brought greater clarity for users to make an informed decision about the content they read online.

Image credit: screen shot from the Mothership.sg website