Yesterday, Lloyd and I attended the AIDS Memorial Day, which is held every third Sunday of May. It was held indoors this year, in one of the lecture halls of Singapore Management University, unlike last year where there was a candlelight walk outdoors.
There were ushers to show us the way to the hall on the second floor. Even though we were 20 minutes early, there were a lot of people already seated. One can tell that a lot of them are gay, with some straight people. Both the right and left seats were taken up by the Red Cross, whose members are quite young, less than 15 years old.
There were representatives and religious leaders from the various faiths seated on the front row. I counted eight of them and I recognised one of them to be Reverend Yap, who used to be the pastor of the Methodist churches in Malaysia and Singapore. He is one of the few pastors who speaks out for homosexuals, as can be seen from his speech not too long ago.
Anyway, the memorial started about 15 minutes later than the scheduled 7 p.m. time. The service was started off by a short welcome note by the MC, who gave an introduction to what the AIDS memorial was all about and thanked the relevant parties.
This was followed by the opening address by the chairman of the organising committee, Dr Derrick (can't remember the surname). His speech was peppered by a lot statistics which basically drive home the fact that HIV infections among the gay community, not just in Singapore but in many Asian countries are on the rise again, outnumbering the heterosexual infections.
The next item was a song, sang by a duo called Flying Without Wings.
What came afterwards was the remembrance, where the 77 people who died of AIDS in Singapore last year had their names called out and volunteers would go on stage to place a name tag on this arrangement of flowers.
It was indeed a solemn affair. I was quite moved by this act to remember those who have passed on, to honour their courageous fight towards the end.
However, there was something that saddened me. The 77 people were not called by their name, but by their initials only. Two, three and four letter word combinations came up on the screen - LYK, BJB, SS, WSTK. I was wondering why on Earth can't these people be remembered properly, when it hit me ...
The stigma. The discrimination. Not to those who have died, but their living family members and friends.
That is something which society is at fault. As the Organising Committee Chairperson said, it's as if once a person has HIV, all his fine qualities and whatever good he has done are erased. He instantly becomes a bad person, who is to be avoided and shunned.
This point was made all the more clearly and painful when there was a sharing by a HIV infected person which was read out by a volunteer (again, to protect the person's anonymity).
She was infected by her husband. The night the news was broken to the rest of the family, she said her family crumbled. Her eldest daughter moved out and stayed with her in-laws that very same night. The youngest daughter moved out too.
Only the second child stayed. But he was forced to make the decision to stay with his parents or to move out, by his girlfriend. Either the parents or the girlfriend. How could one be made to choose, especially in such a situation. He was so stressed that he made the choice to move abroad to work.
The news spread to her relatives and neighbours. She was avoided like the plague and had to move to a new neighbourhood to start a new life. Fortunately, she was discovered by volunteers of FIRSTHAND (a volunteer group, can't remember what the acronym stands for) and was given the support and encouragement to face life's challenges and to realise that she can still lead a normal life.
Another interesting item of the evening was the recital of prayers by the various representatives of different faiths. Singapore has a Inter-Religious Organisation, which can never happen in Malaysia as long as the religious extremist and ignorant are around.
This is what I would call Muhibah, and not those artificial advertisements or posters showing one Malay, one Chinese and one Indian.
Each one of them recited a prayer for those who have passed on and for the living, that they may be fit, healthy and be blessed with a good life.
There was an observation of a minute of silence. Each of us were given a glowstick, instead of a candle.
Another song was sung, "That's What Friends are For", which is a song I love. Things become cheesy a little when the singers asked the audience to sing together and say "Thanks for being my friend" to their neighbours.
It was indeed a memorable event for me. The AIDS scourge is not going to end anytime soon, even with an optimistic theme for the 2007 AIDS Memorial of "Leading the way to a World Without AIDS".
But what we can do is to practice safe sex, remind people about safe sex and to treat people with HIV/AIDS without discrimination. No one deserves to be treated like the woman above, especially in their greatest time of need and support.
P/S I am not really sure how Malaysia commemorated this event, but it seems it was done very differently.