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The Big Read in short: Who wants to be a YouTube star?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we take a glimpse into the lucrative YouTube industry in Singapore. This is a shortened version of the feature.

Ms Sylvia Chan, co-founder of Night Owl Cinematics, poses for a portrait on Jan 8, 2020.

Ms Sylvia Chan, co-founder of Night Owl Cinematics, poses for a portrait on Jan 8, 2020.

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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we take a glimpse into the lucrative YouTube industry in Singapore. This is a shortened version of the feature, which can be found here.

SINGAPORE —  Last month, Forbes released its list of the world’s highest paid YouTube star.

Eight-year-old Ryan Kaji, who was born in Texas in the United States, came out tops, having earned US$26 million last year reviewing toys. 

Singapore’s biggest YouTube stars are not in the same stratosphere but they are doing not too badly themselves. 

There is little publicly available information about the YouTube industry in Singapore, except that the hours of content uploaded from YouTube channels here increased by over 50 per cent between 2018 and last year.

Nevertheless, Mr Tan Jianhao, 26, is regarded as Singapore’s top YouTuber with 3.8 million subscribers to his channel. The chief executive officer and founder of Titan Digital Media reportedly earns a six-figure sum annually although industry observers believe the amount to be higher.  

Another major player, Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), told TODAY that they make a seven-figure amount annually. 


While there was the perception just five years ago that YouTubers should get a real job, several homegrown YouTubers have managed to break out of their bedroom workspaces to build thriving businesses with million-dollar revenues and dozens of employees.

Having built a brand on YouTube, many of them have established presence on other social media platforms as well. 

According to industry players, the “Big Four” of Singapore’s YouTube industry are Titan Digital Media, NOC, Wah!Banana, and Clicknetwork. 

Mostly run by millennials in the late 20s or early 30s, these channels have hit the big time. 

Together, they produce most of the comedy sketches, vlogs, and lifestyle videos that many young Singaporeans are glued to. 

They are getting a big chunk of advertising and marketing budgets as well — both from government agencies and private companies, with quotations of about S$30,000 or more for a branded video. Clients are turning to them, instead of traditional production houses as the YouTubers offer quick turnarounds and “guaranteed” views. 

Among the Big Four, Mr Tan Jianhao leads the pack, charging S$38,000 for branded content and S$20,000 for a vlog in 2018 when he had 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, according to his June 2018 rate card seen by TODAY. 

Today, with nearly four million subscribers, it is estimated that Mr Tan Jianhao is charging about S$50,000 for a video on YouTube. He did not respond to TODAY’s query on his latest rates.

Such rates for Singapore’s top YouTubers are by no means scaring clients off.

NOC co-founder Sylvia Chan, 32, said she has to be more selective with clients as her firm’s YouTube channel — which has about 967,000 subscribers — receives 50 to 150 enquiries a week. 

The channel’s median per-video income ranges between S$30,000 and S$40,000, said Ms Chan who runs the business with her husband, Ryan Tan, 31. 

Nevertheless, Ms Chan said that their business expenses including manpower and equipment costs are substantial, running into the millions. 

According to the YouTubers, the marketing dollars here started pouring in about three years ago. 

Wah!Banana co-founder and producer Xiong Lingyi pointed out that there is “no shortage of money” in the industry, given that many multinational corporations have their headquarters in Singapore.  “A lot of people hire us for the audience we have in this region,” she said. 

Wah!Banana currently has more than one million subscribers. When it started out in 2012, 90 per cent of its audience were from Singapore. The proportion has dropped to less than 40 per cent today, as they gain audiences in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, India and the Philippines. 

Based on TODAY’s interviews with YouTubers, such a trend is common for many of them as well. 


The explosive growth of the lucrative YouTube industry has drawn new players who were previously focused on other platforms. 

They include TheSmartLocal and SGAG’s Nubbad TV, which have about 264,000 and 72,300 subscribers respectively. 

A relatively new entrant is a 30-man content agency and media group, Grvty Media. In 2018, it started producing a risque online talk show Real Talk, which helped its Millennials of Singapore channel grow rapidly. 

The talk show has featured topics such as how to “talk dirty” and the hosts had also shared how they lost their virginity. 

One of Real Talk’s latest and biggest clients is ride-hailing company Grab, which sponsored an episode where the co-hosts discussed their relationship with parents.

Grvty media director Daniel Lim, 28, said more clients are now aware of the power of soft sell. At the same time, clients are becoming increasingly savvy. 

Grvty co-founder and business director Johnathan Chua, 30, said: “When we first started, there were a lot of cowboy players who were charging stupid amounts of money that was very, very hard to justify. There was no sense of normalisation."

Indeed, a YouTuber in his 20s who declined to be named, told TODAY that about five to six years ago, he was shocked to be offered S$35,000 by his first client to conceptualise and produce a series of seven three- to five-minute videos for a local brand. His channel was only one year old at that time and had about 10,000 subscribers.  

“I thought it was S$5,000 for the whole project but when they say S$5,000 per video, I went like ‘Huh!’,” he said. Today, his channel has more than 70,000 subscribers and he charges about S$2,000 for a video. 


The success of some of Singapore’s top YouTubers has recently been attracting criticism of their content. 

Among other things, they have been criticised for being unoriginal and relying on listicles and eye candy — young, attractive women wearing sexy outfits — to draw eyeballs.  

At least two YouTubers whom TODAY spoke to admitted that the use of eye candy is a deliberate strategy in the industry to optimise view counts. 

A YouTuber in his late 20s who declined to be named said he used the tactic once on his channel, and managed to get more than 300,000 views.

“I was like ‘woah, that easy?’ Of course, it was funny content as well, but girls are (half the battle won) — the first step of making a successful YouTube video in Singapore or anywhere else,” he said. 

However, junior college student Jamie Lynn, 17, who has stopped watching Singapore YouTubers even though she used to as a child, said she is “disgusted and disturbed” by the use of sexualised images to draw viewers. 

“It will breed a very predatory kind of culture... It makes it look like it’s okay to use women’s bodies for clickbait and for boys to think of girls like that,” she said. 

In general, she now finds that the comedy sketches by Singapore YouTubers are “too exaggerated” and the jokes “are not funny anymore”.


The YouTuber in his late 20s also offered some insights into another less savoury aspect of the industry – a toxic numbers game in which the person with the most subscribers plays “god”, and a hierarchy forms around others with the next biggest subscriber bases.

“The dynamics are such that if someone helped me before the last time and I forgot about them after I got famous, they will talk behind my back and say: ‘So you are doing your own thing now?’” he said. “There’s the unsaid thing of how you better pay your respects and kiss the ring.”

According to YouTubers, a well-known clique in the local scene comprises NOC, Mr Tan Jianhao and Mr Darryl Koshy (better known as Dee Kosh). 

Speaking to TODAY, Dee Kosh responded to claims of bullying thrown at him by other YouTubers. Among the examples cited was a video which Dee Kosh did in 2018 with fellow social media personality Munah Hirzi, where they made fun of influencer and YouTube personality Nicole Choo after she published a book.

Dee Kosh said he does not consider it to be bullying when he laughs “at the stupidity of another one of my peers”. 

He added: “My comedy is a reflection of society, of you, even the bad parts about it, and if you yourself looking in the mirror can’t accept what you see, then of course you’re gonna blame the mirror for bullying you. So if you can’t take the heat, then why are you in the kitchen? Basically, loosen up.”

Ms Chan from NOC described the community as one “where people want each other to grow”. 

On the claims that the big players help one another at the expense of others, Ms Chan said that such collaboration is simply a way by which close friends help each other to stay competitive. 

“If a client is particularly rich, I’ll say: ‘You know what, bro? How about a video on Jianhao’s (channel) too?’ And the same thing he does for me and Dee Kosh,” she said.

Mr Tan Jianhao did not reply to TODAY’s request for comment.

On whether such a culture could be a detriment to smaller players hoping to break into the scene, Mr Marc Lefkowitz, head of creator and artist development for YouTube’s Asia-Pacific operations, reiterated that “everyone has an opportunity to be successful on YouTube on their own”.

He pointed out that YouTube provides learning courses such as the YouTube Creator Academy or the Creator Insider channel to level the playing field. 


Indeed, some YouTubers new to the scene told TODAY that they generally felt that there is enough space to flourish on their own terms.

Ms Brenda Tan, 24, started creating lifestyle videos on YouTube in 2016. She has never felt a need to conform to creating certain types of videos, such as comedies that have proven to be successful. 

Other YouTubers also pointed out that they need not restrict themselves to the Singapore market. 

Ms Tiana Roy, 22, who runs lifestyle YouTube channel “heythisistiana”, said she prefers engaging an overseas audience as the scene in Singapore is “a bit one-dimensional”. 

Still, the industry is not for the faint-hearted. A former darling among the audience, TreePotatoes, which has 390,000 subscribers, might be calling it a day.

The channel, which was launched in November 2013 but is inactive these days, had produced videos which in their own words, “explore all the quirkiness of life in South-east Asia”.

Ms Janice Chiang, 32, one of the personalities behind the channel, said their client enquiries, which used to come from government agencies and big firms, started tapering off two to three years ago. 

So rather than focusing on producing branded content, it started exploring alternative sources of revenue by going into producing original content — at a time when big names such as Netflix and HBO were growing such offerings. 

“We decided that we better jump before the ship starts sinking,” said Ms Chiang, who is now doing marketing and business development in the media industry. 


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