Singapore’s media policy towards homosexuality and Section 377A will hinder any improvement of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Singapore. The preliminary success of AIDS Chinese drama serial 不凡的爱By My Side and scholarly material show that educational-entertainment programs on free-to-air TV can be used to positively generate HIV awareness and prevention. However, the fact that homosexuality is a taboo topic for the media means that media companies and non-profit and government initiatives cannot use this tool to fight the epidemic where it is needed the most.

Okay, the previous paragraph summarizes the jist of my post, but please read on, I spent a lot of time researching it and writing it 😛 

According to the The Ministry of Health update on HIV/AIDS report released on June 3, 2009, new heterosexual infections have decreased while homosexuality cases continue to rise.

This is not really ‘new’ news. HIV/AIDS has always been the torch used to scare those who don’t know better. It is also true that HIV is a problem in the gay community around the world, let alone Singapore .

The real news, however, is the fact that in 2008, MediaCorp aired the Chinese language drama serial 不凡的爱By My Side in 2008 which tells the story of a married, middle-aged Chinese man (Chen Hanwei) who contracts HIV after making the mistake of having unprotected sex with a prostitute. Caldecott Queen  Zoe Tay and teen idols Rui En and Elvin Ng round up the star-studded series that ran from 20 episodes between October and November 2008.

To my knowledge (through reading of reviews, forum responses, online synopsis and some youtube excerpts), the series was actually quite good. Success came in an increase in number of people who went for HIV testing, and a general improvement in HIV prevention knowledge. The real litmus of success, I argue, is the decrease of new infections, evident only in the heterosexual population.

The fact that there is a reported decrease in HIV infections in only the heterosexual population means means that well-written, educational but still entertaining shows like By My Side can be used successfully for HIV prevention.

If you’re still skeptical about the importance of 不凡的爱By My Side in preventing new HIV/AIDS infections,  look at the facts: new cases among the Chinese population  rose only by 2.2% (8 new cases in 2008) as compared to 20% between 2006-2007, while new infections among Malays rose by a whooping 51% (47 in 2007 to 71 in 2008). 

Of course, the real success of By My Side can only be claimed preliminarily as the show only aired for 2 months, and only in Chinese language free-to-air TV. More data needs to be seen. Nonetheless, the use of entertainment to increase awareness over health issues with positive results has been widely studied and documented. Such social change initiatives have also been successfully implemented in places like Africa.

So, why is it that such a powerful tool for HIV prevention is not being used to target the segment of Singapore’s population that has been consistently portrayed as the one that needs it most, i.e. gay men? This seems contradictory.

The discrimination and stigmatization of homosexuality in our society, reinforced  by our media policy and ultimately codified in section 377A, is the reason.

Singapore’s media policy essentially punishes media organizations that portray homosexuality or bisexuality in any light other than bad. (Click here for MICA related articles on the topic ; see The Straits Times article extracted below for a report of the MOH release). So which means even if the writers of 不凡的爱By Your Side wanted to include gay characters in the show, they can’t possibly do so with integrity or effectiveness. Consider this: if the main character Bu Fan (Chen Hanwei) were to be portrayed as a caricature, how credible would the show be? Would his circumstances be as real and as moving as a more authentic portrayal?

Aside from stigmatization codified in Section 377A, strong anti-gay hate language is also permissible in Parliament (RE: Thio Li Ann),  as is ill-informed rhetoric (RE: Balaji 2004 speech and the gay lifestyle). I don’t blame Singapore media for side-stepping the issue altogether if homosexuality is illegal.

As I had discussed in a previous post, the media plays an important role in education and social change. If any real leeway is to be made in improving the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Singapore, formal steps must be taken to allow HIV/AIDS advocates to engage the homosexual population in respectful and non-judgmental ways through media. (The same goes for the portrayal of the Malay and Indian communities in the media)

The lack of non-caricature, non-stigmatized portrayal of gay men and women is a problem in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Singapore. HIV/AIDS will continue to spread in Singapore not because of sin or lifestyle, it’s the lack of successfully targeted  educational programs, and the alienation of those who need it the most.

(The Straits Times article has been extracted after the jump)

June 5, 2009
HIV up among gays and bisexuals
Spike also seen among intravenous drug users
By Judith Tan
THE number of homosexuals and bisexuals here who tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) last year climbed to a new high.

The increase comes as overall figures rose 7.8 per cent, with activist groups and counsellors calling for more education across all genders and lifestyles.

Although the number of HIV cases from heterosexual transmission – which makes up the bulk at 54 per cent – has fallen from 255 in 2007 to 248 last year, the spread among homosexuals and bisexuals has spiked, rising by 16 per cent and 127 per cent respectively between 2007 and last year.

These statistics, released on the Health Ministry (MOH) website on Wednesday, show a total of 456 people tested positive for HIV, the first stage of the Aids virus, last year. Unfortunately, half were already in the late stages when they were diagnosed.

The virus can lay dormant for up to 10 years, showing little sign of infection.

Of those who tested positive, more than nine out of 10 were men and the total number infected since the first official Aids case appeared here in 1985 is now 3,941. Nearly one-third have died.

The MOH did not cite reasons for the increase in the numbers, but the increase in clinics carrying out anonymous tests may have encouraged more people to come forward for testing.

Anonymous HIV testing began here in 1991 in a Kelantan Lane clinic run by the Action For Aids (AFA), a voluntary community- based organisation committed to Aids prevention, advocacy and support.

It was extended to two general practitioner clinics in June 2006, and another four in November last year.

Apart from that, researchers and volunteers are saying there is an increasing number of gay men getting infected due to open relationships with their partners.

‘The men have become complacent and do not use protection. This trend was also found by research done in five large cities in the United States and in the Netherlands,’ said Mr Brenton Wong, former vice-president of AFA.

Male and female individuals in both the 20-29 and 30-39 age group had the highest increase of transmission.

AFA spokesman Lionel Lee said these age groups are the most sexually active and also travel more, increasing their exposure to the virus.

They may have also not seen the effects of HIV personally. They are therefore less likely to be afraid of contracting HIV, he said.

Another concern was the spread of HIV through intravenous drug use. Infections increased almost three times – from seven in 2007 to 20 last year.

‘The use of drugs is also on the rise, impairing judgment. Younger people have become adventurous sexually and are rather complacent about having multiple sexual partners and using protection. Coupled with drugs, it is a definite recipe for disaster,’ Mr Wong said.

He added that younger people are not aware of the early years of the Aids – acquired immune deficiency syndrome – epidemic when death rates were high.

‘For this new generation, the educational messaging about safe sex should be consistent and persistent to knock some sense into them,’ he said.

Mr Lee said the AFA is exploring new avenues to educate high-risk individuals, but added: ‘We have not been able to use the mass media as this is still a sensitive topic.’

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