August 2005

He who knows what he knows




Two needs have come together. Like many newspapers around the world, the Straits Times has been concerned about losing the next generation of readers to blogs and other online attractions. The government has been concerned about the next generation becoming totally disengaged from Singapore affairs (yes, I know, fingers should be pointed the other way around).

So, to serve both the commercial and the political need, the Straits Times has beefed up its section for younger readers. They are invited to write in and given the pleasure of being published -- which is more than they have ever done for their gay and lesbian readers, where "don't call us, we'll call you if we need a reaction to some new government policy" is the rule.

Anyway, in the YouthLink section of the Straits Times on 1 August 2005, the topic was AIDS. Three letters presented an interesting contrast:


1 Aug 2005
Straits Times

I am not worried about catching Aids. Not now, not ever.

Call me complacent, but I have good reason for thinking my chances of being infected with this terrible disease are remote. I neither have sex nor do drugs - the two main ways people contract the HIV virus that causes Aids.

According to Health Ministry statistics, 307 out of the 311 reported HIV cases here last year resulted from either sexual transmission or intravenous drug use.

I don't avoid engaging in these activities because of a fear of getting Aids. Even if I could be vaccinated against the disease, I would still choose not to have sex or do drugs - simply because it is wrong for me to do either.

"Wrong" has little meaning in this post-modern age when nothing is absolute anymore. But I am a Christian. I believe that God meant sex for marriage only. But for those of you who conform to no such moral compass, I think that abstaining from sex and drugs is the only safe option if you value life.

Having casual sex and doing intravenous drugs is no different from swimming at a beach you know is infested with sharks.

Do you go ahead and swim anyway? That's being foolhardy. And, to some extent, foolhardy people have to take responsibility for their actions.

To my fellow thinking youth, I exhort you to just say no. And to the rest of you who want to carry on with your liberal lifestyles, the signpost is pretty clear: swim at your own peril.

Elgin Toh

The writer is about to study political science and economics at Washington University in St Louis, US.

1 Aug 2005
Straits Times

Growing up in a conservative family, my parents and I rarely talked about sexual issues such as HIV/Aids. Most of my knowledge about Aids came from sex education in biology classes and conversations with friends.

It is human to think of Aids as "other people's disease". And more often than not, we are slow to acknowledge our ignorance, seek information or clarify our misconceptions about the disease.

I have an embarrassing admission to make: I only recently learnt from the Action for Aids' (AFA) website that HIV can't be spread by mosquitoes.

I started reading up on the subject only when I felt the need to defend my homosexual friends against stereotypes that equated being gay with being HIV-positive.

Because gays take a lot of flak for the rising HIV infection rate in Singapore, some of my gay friends have decided against disclosing their orientation to loved ones and live in constant fear of being exposed.

Shunning HIV-positive people and viewing HIV as a gay disease will only fuel more discrimination and an attitude of complacency.

Educating people to be responsible for themselves, on the other hand, is a far better way of fighting the disease. In this respect, AFA has done a great job.

However, education can only be effective to an extent. Individual action still speaks louder than words.

Desmond Chan

The writer is a third-year communication studies student at the Nanyang Technological University.



1 Aug 2005
Straits Times

What if I were HIV-positive? How would my parents, friends and colleagues react? Would they kick me out of the house and heap abuse on me? More likely than not, they wouldn't want to come close to me.

Have you ever contemplated the indescribable emotional trauma of an Aids sufferer? He not only has to come to terms with living with HIV, but also has to face the stigma, mistrust and even hatred of some in society.

Some people have a "they-sow-what-they reap" attitude. HIV, they say, is a just reward for a promiscuous lifestyle.

I beg to differ. Getting on your high horse and pointing the finger will only perpetuate a culture of fear and denial, prevent people from obtaining proper information and being tested, and drive the disease deeper underground.

And it's unfortunate that many people still think of Aids as a "gay" disease. Let's not forget that nearly two-thirds of all HIV transmissions last year occurred through heterosexual contact.

There is a need to debunk the myths and fallacies surrounding HIV/Aids, especially the misconception that all HIV-positive people are gay. Sadly, old prejudices die hard.

People living with HIV/Aids need our help and support, not our derision. Research has shown that people with HIV who undergo treatment can remain healthy for a long time and continue to contribute to society.

The next time you think of discriminating against those who are HIV-positive, remember that the Aids virus is no discriminator of people when it strikes.

Izad Saled Ali

The writer is a communications student at Edith Cowan University in Australia and a volunteer with the West Australian Aids Council.


To most readers, I think, the first letter, by Elgin Toh, will sound rather off-putting, and we're going to analyse why that is so.

To some extent, it may be because you do not share his belief system, whereas those who share his belief system may consider the second and third letters to be typical foolish stuff from "bleeding-heart liberals".

But I will demonstrate here why the first letter is off-putting even without having to contest his belief system. His style alone comes across poorly.

Toh's letter opens with a degree of smugness that thumps you. "I am not worried about catching Aids. Not now, not ever," he says.

Then he challenges the reader, "Call me complacent, but...."

He goes on to say that the behaviours that might put people at risk are wrong, and simply because they are wrong, he doesn't engage in them. What an austere person! He reveals that he is Christian and dismisses other belief-systems as having "little meaning in this post-modern age when nothing is absolute anymore."

Well, this is not so easily dismissed. There can be very good arguments that in fact the world is relative, and that absolutism is little more than a figment of the imagination. A simple test: different people, all of whom claim that there are absolutes in this world, proclaim different ideas to be absolute. There is no agreement!

And why is "post-modern" a dirty word?

Why is "liberal" a dirty word, as when he says, "And to the rest of you who want to carry on with your liberal lifestyles, the signpost is pretty clear."

His is a letter that places himself on a pedestal, making himself the reference of all things right and proper, pure and good. From that pulpit, he sets out to "exhort you to just say no". He is aware of counter-arguments against his belief system, but he dismisses them by labelling them, and using those labels in a derogatory tone.

He proudly tells his readers that he has no time for empathy: "foolhardy people have to take responsibility for their actions."

* * * * *

Izad Saled Ali's letter provided the rebuttal:

Some people have a "they-sow-what-they reap" attitude. HIV, they say, is a just reward for a promiscuous lifestyle.

I beg to differ. Getting on your high horse and pointing the finger will only perpetuate a culture of fear and denial, prevent people from obtaining proper information and being tested, and drive the disease deeper underground.

That culture of fear and denial is illustrated by the preceding article When sex, condoms and HIV remain unspeakable.

Desmond Chan's letter was interesting in another way -- he was a straight guy wanting to defend his gay friends, and to do so, he set out to educate himself.



Here is an old saying from Confucius:

Zhi zhi wei zhi zhi 
Bu zhi wei bu zhi 
Zhi ye 

Know what you know 
Own up to what you do not know 
That's wisdom!

-- correct text and translation
courtesy Russell Heng

Does it seem to you that Elgin Toh might have known what he knew, but he stopped there? Chan on the other hand, lived up to the second line of the sage's advice: he was conscious of what he didn't know, which motivated him to find out. Izad asks us all to do the same.

* * * * *

It is no coincidence that Elgin Toh, in his letter, described himself as Christian. Too many who describe themselves as Christian go about life with an inordinate degree of certitude, especially about other people's business. You will have noticed that I am careful to say "he described himself as Christian", for many Christians will argue that his views were most unchristian.

In a way, this difference comes about from the way they access their religion. In her fascinating article, Distorting scripture, literally, Karen Armstrong said,

People talk confidently about scripture, but it is not clear that even the most ardent religious practitioners really know what it is. Protestant fundamentalists, for example, claim that they read the Bible in the same way as the early Christians, but their belief that it is literally true in every detail is a recent innovation, formulated for the first time in the late 19th century.

She argues that much of scripture was meant to be read as allegory, to provoke our own thinking and reflection upon our own times. She noted, for example, that

All the verses of the Quran, for example, are called ayat or parables...

More importantly, scripture is meant to be taken as a whole, instead of

focusing on isolated texts and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections...

Two recent changes have distorted our approach to scripture. Universal literacy has meant that people tend to read scripture by themselves for themselves, without the discipline of a broader understanding of its history and how it was meant as a conversation among its various parts. In centuries past, scriptural teaching was mediated by priests and abbots who spent a lifetime in study and contemplation. Armstrong said,

Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of their scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity.

The other change was due to the success of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that it bred. People acquired the habit of expecting facts in whatever they read. In the same frame of mind, they approach scripture

for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all.

That is why, she argued, there is a enormous, and sometimes deadly contest between pseudo-religionists and the real world, between those who use their reading of scripture to justify their ideas of the absolute, and others who'd be more humble and compassionate. These others may be highly religious, except that they use a more reflexive understanding of their faith to better understand and live alongside other people. 

Which is the higher calling? To exhort others to an absolute straight and narrow, or to devote oneself to humility and mercy?

Yawning Bread