Greater Contribution of Faith Leaders and Communities in the Response to HIV/Aids (Reaching Triple Zero: Challenges and Opportunities for Religious Community) Yap Kim Hao (Singapore) This is an edited version of Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao’s keynote
address to about 150 delegates to the Asia Interfaith Network on Aids (AINA)
Interfaith Pre-Conference of the
International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in
Bangkok, November 18-22, 2013.
We are here from various interfaith
communities, and we are currently engaged in local programmes and projects in
Asia/Pacific in reaching Triple Zero – New Infections, AIDS-related deaths,
Discrimination. Who are we and what do we represent? How many are leaders of
our religious establishment? How much are we involved? What kind of support, if
any, are we really receiving from our religious organisations? It seems to me
that there is a gigantic task to do within our religious communities to get
more people to contribute in the response to HIV/Aids. We must recognise this
it if we aim to reach Triple Zero.
Each religious community has had a
long historical tradition and changes do not come easily. But things and events
around us are moving at a great speed, and people of religion are often unable
to keep up and are frequently left behind. HIV spreads rapidly on its own, whether
we are aware of it or not. It is a public health issue and our communities must
realise it. Yes, HIV/AIDS affects us individually and corporately.
We have the responsibility to
enlighten our religious people and mobilise their support to face the
challenges, and seize the opportunities to reach Triple Zero. We have attended
and we know what needs to done.
Appeals have been issued to secure their support. But there is still widespread
indifference. On our part, we reach out to some people afflicted with HIV/AIDS and
listened to their cries and responded to their sorrows. We cannot do it alone
or always depend on support from outside our own countries.
We ourselves have to understand
where our people come from and their perception of HIV/AIDS. There are facts
and figures around, and there are people suffering from HIV/AIDS. There are
programmes and projects directed to People Living with HIV/Aids. If your
religious community is like mine, they are not facing the issue when presented with
it. It has not touched them unless their loved ones have been infected. It is a
public health issue which they dismiss. Our religious teachings have not been
able to influence them. To be involved in HIV/AIDS is not part of their
I can only share my experience of
my faith community - the Christian one in which I have spent my entire working life
and even beyond the seventeen years after I was officially retired at the age
In very broad strokes, let me
outline the factors that led the Christian community to where it is now. Both Christianity
and Islam stem from the same Jewish faith. Human sexuality is a problem from
its very beginning - the story of Adam and Eve, for instance. The Creation myth
is about human relationships but has become all about temptation and nakedness,
sex and sin. Since then, when we see men and women intimately together we see
love or sex, but with men and men or women and women we quickly assume sin!
Religious teachings on sexuality
arise at different stages of the history of my faith. There is the context of
the early tribal societies and contestation between the Jewish and the
non-Jewish tribes. There is the rise and fall of the Jewish State which is
still unresolved. Power was finally wrestled from the Jews by the Romans and
Greeks. The Jews were compelled to set themselves apart from the others, and strive
to maintain their identity, purity of life and doctrine. Later the Christian
movement emerged from the Jewish faith. Christians seek domination and have to
contend today with different religions. Christianity promoted its teaching on
sexuality and even officially regards celibacy or life without sex as a great
virtue. Artificial contraception is not allowed in Roman Catholic teaching till
today. Indulging in sexual activity is sometimes viewed as a gateway to damnation.
Such is the prevailing majority perception. My own religious history regards
sexuality more in negative terms.
So when HIV/AIDS is transmitted
primarily through sexual encounters, then the resulting attitude of Christian
believers is that those who are infected have done wrong and sinned, and
punishment. This is particularly
so when connected with homosexuality, which in the early days of HIV/AIDS was
regarded as a “gay disease.”
These negative feelings and
hostile attitudes linger on. We have to deal with them within my own religious
community, which is still the seedbed for stigmatisation and discrimination. It
influences people of other faiths as well on the sexuality issue.
It is important that we change
the common perceptions of our own religious people before we consider the
challenges with which Triple Zero confronts us, and grasp the opportunities to
meet such challenges. Our religious communities are called to a change of
mindset towards HIV/AIDS.
Faith communities have to be
reminded about the positive values of love and compassion, mercy and kindness.
Can they see People Living with HIV/AIDS through these lenses?
The approach for us here is to
continue to lead by example and commit ourselves to the service of People
Living with HIV/AIDS. We have to be the odd or queer person who is concerned
with them. They look at us and will begin to wonder why we are involved. We must show them the way to get in touch
with real victims, and not just the label of “People Living with HIV/AIDS.”
They must encounter human faces showing pain and their agony.
Allow me to share with you this
personal experience. A few years ago, one of my church members came out to me
when he was tested positive. Since then, he has reconciled himself with it and
moved on in his career. He volunteered to conduct counselling sessions with
prisoners. In one of his visits he came to know that a prisoner with AIDS has
just died because he had no access to ARV medication. He asked me whether I could
help and I readily provided him with regular funds to secure medication for
prisoners who needed it. It was four years later that it came to our knowledge
that because of the high cost of proprietary ARV drugs, the government did not
dispense them to prisoners with HIV. People living with HIV have to get
medication through their own funds, or from friends and family members. When my
attention was drawn to it, I considered it not just a question of charity but
of justice. They were sent to prison because of certain crimes they committed,
but if they were tested positive they were handed a death sentence as well.
Singapore has a National HIV/AIDS
Policy Committee which is headed by a government Minister. It co-ordinates the
works of various governmental ministries which touch on the issue of HIV/Aids.
I wrote an email to the Chairperson, one of the ministers from the Ministry of
Health, and indicated that Singapore Interfaith Network on Aids (SINA) which I
have convened is addressing this particular issue. She immediately replied that
she personally agreed with me and would take the matter up in her Policy
Committee. This matter took almost two years of negotiations with the Ministry
of Home Affairs in charge of Prisons. I am very glad that just two weeks ago, when
I emailed the Chairperson to tell her that I would be attending this meeting, I
received a response from her informing me that "no prison inmate will be
denied HIV treatment." From now onwards People living with HIV who are in
prison will have access to ARV medication. We did it without a public campaign
and with no media attention.
This leads me now to pursue a
project that will provide generic ARV medication of the highest quality and at
the most reasonable price for People Living with Aids. Generic ARV drugs are
not allowed to be on sale in the open market in Singapore. At the same time,
the pressure on Big Pharma to lower its prices for proprietary drugs continues.
We cannot concentrate on HIV/AIDS
as a single isolated medical issue. There are other factors that we must
address. Let me now share with you the programmes and projects that I am
directly involved in.
I support my friends, Christians
and non-Christians, who lead two NGOs in service to migrant workers. There are
over one million of them. Safe sex information is provided. Labour rights are
defended. These projects have to take into account the migrant workers’
countries of origin. So there is a project in Batam, Indonesia and Manila, Philippines
that cater to them when they return to and are reintegrated into their own
country by providing work and micro-financing schemes.
All foreign employees who are
tested positive are not allowed to stay and work in Singapore, and have to be
repatriated. There is also discriminatory practices in the matter of employment
and advancement that affect People Living with HIV.
Another NGO to which I relate is
engaged in services to sex workers, a good number of whom are transgenders. They are provided with free condoms, tested for
HIV/AIDS, and medical assistance, and skills-training. We defend them from
police brutality when they run afoul of the law, for many are non-Singaporean overstayers.
Free Community Church in which I
serve as Pastoral Advisor is the only gay-affirming Church in Singapore. LGBT
people are welcomed and our ministry is to reconcile their faith with their
sexuality. They participate in all the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.
A Woman's Rights organisation has
solicited my help in a three-year study research project of UN Women on
Interfaith Faith and Gender Equality. The religious teachings will be analysed
for relevancy to questions like patriarchy, sexual ethics, sexuality, marriage
and family values.
There is a continuing need to
provide comprehensive sex education to the youths, which includes safe sex. The
sex education that is officially offered concentrates on the dangers of sexual
activity and the necessity of avoiding it. It is only recently that teachers
are allowed to talk about condoms. This is particularly important as the transmission
of sexually transmitted infections is predominantly through sexual encounters.
My Catholic colleague in SINA
runs the only hospice for needy AIDS patients who have no home of their own to
go to, or who have not come across public homes which are willing to take them
in. It has a capacity of only thirty now, and hopes to move to larger
facilities next year.
All these are key affected and
vulnerable groups that we must not ignore. And we have to consider the issue of
HIV/Aids in a comprehensive way.
There are the wider Triple Zero
issues of poverty eradication, employment restrictions, and equality
empowerment of People Living with HIV/AIDS.
This is to affirm that the People living with HIV/AIDS are human too,
and must have their basic rights respected.
I am heartened by the report that
Pope Francis has just launched a Survey throughout the Roman Catholic Church on
Family Values, and that an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops will be convened next
year to discuss it. The issues that will be surveyed include procreation, artificial
contraception, abortion, and polygamy. Related hot button issues on same-sex
marriage, birth control, divorce which are firmly held norms of the Church will
also be discussed. The outcome will have an impact on attitudes and responses
Just last week, the World Council
of Churches which is composed of the non-Catholic Churches concluded its
Assembly in Busan, Korea, and issued a world-wide call to Protestant and
Orthodox churches to engage in key issues of justice: justice in the global
economic system, holding financial institutions accountable, continuing efforts
for human rights and human dignity, empowering the churches to tackle the concerns
of ecology, as well as addressing threats of HIV and AIDS. The Rev. Phumzile
Mabizela from South Africa, executive director of the Interfaith Network of
Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS
(INERELA+), said that HIV-positive people have a “gift of dignity they can
share with the churches.” She stressed that HIV is not merely a medical issue
but an issue of social justice.
The challenges and the
opportunities are for our religious communities to stand in solidarity with our
People Living with HIV/AIDS, and to participate in and make greater contributions
in all sectors of our society which will enable us to reach Triple Zero.
Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, in his retirement from full-time
Christian ministry, serves as Pastoral Advisor to the Free Community Church
(FCC) in Singapore. He serves on the Council of the Inter-Religious
Organisation (IRO) in Singapore and is committed to the promotion of
inter-faith dialogue and understanding. In 2013, Yap initiated the formation of
the Singapore Interfaith Network on Aids (SINA). SINA comprises religious and non-government
organisations of various faiths which want to intensify their support of
persons living HIV.