By R Lin
In October 2012, an acquaintance of mine was barred from re-entry into Singapore because of his medical condition – he is HIV positive.
My friend is a foreigner who had lived in Singapore for 10 years. He has made many close friends, established a career as an artist, and built his life around his adopted country, even recently graduating from one of our top universities with an honours degree. However, all this counts for nothing now that he is HIV positive, having contracted the virus while living in Singapore. He discovered this while he was still studying and sought medical help immediately.
As is routine practice, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is notified of all such cases. And the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will act to evict such persons from Singapore based on directives from MOH, specifically relating to the Infectious Diseases Act.
In 1998, amendments were made to Section 8 of the Immigration Act of Singapore to include HIV positive foreigners in the list of “prohibited immigrants”, alongside vagrants, prostitutes, pimps, human traffickers, criminals, and anyone who “advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the Government” or “assassination of public officials”, or individuals as described under the section..
Backed by his school and professors, my friend sent in an appeal to continue his studies to ICA then, and I guess they gave him a grace period to finish his studies before booting him out, as I understand there are instances where foreigners – even married partners to locals – are told to leave the country within two weeks of finding out they are infected. They may appeal, but this can be a long-drawn out process sometimes stretching up to as long as two years, and the outcome may not even be in their favour.
Are our blanket laws too discriminating?
When my friend discovered his health status, he sought medical help immediately. He is still on regular follow-up.
My friend, though only in his mid-twenties, has contributed significantly to Singapore. He is an up-and-coming artist who has been involved in numerous arts projects in Singapore, collaborated with respectable and renowned local art personalities including cultural medallion recipients, and is of one of the few locally-based foreign young artists who have helped raise our country’s profile in the local and international arts stage somewhat. Moreover, he has single-handedly curated exhibitions and organised exchanges with similar young artists from around the world. And he did these without thinking that Singapore is merely his adopted country. When he was barred entry following his day trip across the causeway, he told me that he felt he was suddenly disowned. At the checkpoint, he was told curtly that he could no longer enter and go home to Singapore and that he should just “get your friends to transfer money to you so you can fly back”. He has since flown back to his home country.
Singapore is among the 23% of 193 WHO countries to practise this ban on HIV-positive individuals, a ban described by the UN as “counterproductive and discriminatory” According to HIV reports of countries that do not practise this ban, there are no reported increase in HIV rates in them. It is a point substantiated by the UNAIDS’ Global Report 2013.
The report said, “HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay and residence may limit the uptake of HIV voluntary testing and hinder adherence to HIV treatment.” Furthermore, it stresses that “these laws and the ways they are carried out violate the human rights of people living with HIV.”
Countries which do not adopt such bans promote more accessible treatment of HIV as more individuals – locals and foreigners – are willing to come forward to be tested and treated because there is less discrimination on all fronts. Ultimately, it is this accessibility, and responsibility on the part of the country, that will save lives.
As if ironic, my friend was on regular follow up with his doctor, and was a volunteer with Action for AIDS, working on a campaign to fight discrimination right up till the day he was barred entry. His artwork and projects dealt with the subject of discrimination too. It is sad that while he has been working so hard to fight discrimination, he himself has been discriminated against.
Deported again on valid medical grounds
With a doctor’s letter, a confirmed medical appointment and a temporary internal lifting of the ban by the ICA, my friend was able to come back into Singapore for one medical appointment successfully in February 2013, but was subject to about an hour’s questioning and scrutiny at Immigration.
His doctor then gave him a follow-up medical appointment on 29 October 13. With all things settled internally again, he arrived at Changi Airport on 23 October. At the immigrations counter, he was asked why his period of stay was two weeks (HIV patients require a blood test to be taken at least one week – sometimes three weeks if more extensive tests are required – prior to their doctor’s appointment date and their doctors only come in on certain days of the week, based on rotation). When my friend said the blood test results take at least a week, he said the officer scoffed at him, saying, “It doesn’t take so long.” Medically, one week is the minimal time needed for HIV patients’ blood results to be obtained because of the more intensive procedures required to monitor their conditions.
He was then sent to a detention room, had his phone confiscated, asked to count how much money he had on him and wasn’t given a chance to reason with the officers. After four hours, he was asked to pay a $61 “security fee”, escorted by police to the boarding gate of a plane bound for his home country and deported again, without any reasons given or him being given a chance for clarification. He said he was spoken harshly to in the detention room and felt “like a criminal”.
Education for humanity, or power to the ignorant?
In this latest episode, my friend was forbidden from the right to speak, and the immigrations officer didn’t even bother to verify my friend’s medical appointment dates or credibility of what he had said. My friend said he got the impression that the officer was “saving Singapore and his children from a zombie virus” – my friend’s exact words. Education could make us realise that HIV-positive people are not zombies, or have rabies, or go around with the intent of infecting others. A social worker I spoke to said the reason for these draconian rules is “to prevent social contact”, a rule which she herself questioned. Yes, I know we need a secure and safe homeland, but surely being discriminatory towards certain groups of people is not the way to achieve this, especially if the reasons – and rules – are not totally logical or based on quantitative proof. With lack of education, we lack awareness, and empathy.
The past year has been trying for my friend, and he has appealed numerous times through a Singaporean sponsor and even through parliamentarians and cabinet ministers – with strong supporting documents from notable members of the arts fraternity, to the ICA, describing his contributions and character. Unfortunately, all these seem to be invalid now that his sero-status is different from the masses’.
All replies from the ICA came back with the same terse lines:
“We have considered the appeal carefully. We regret to inform you that your appeal is unsuccessful.”
Contributions and his character aside, my friend chose to be responsible by seeking medical treatment in Singapore when he was first diagnosed. He could have gotten an anonymous test and skipped MOH’s radar. What about the thousands who come through our various gateways – whatever their medical conditions – undetected? So, is this law in place to penalise responsible foreigners? Also, why do our frontline officers – who lack expertise and knowledge in these (medical) areas – have the power to decide the fate of someone, even if he or she may have supporting documentation from higher authorities or professionals?
The 8th Singapore Aids Conference (SAC) , held in November last year, and supported by the Health Promotion Board, was themed: “Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections, Zero Discrimination, Zero AIDS-related Deaths” – similar to UNAIDS’ current vision.
While I felt empowered by the speeches of professionals and individuals at the day-long conference to fight against the stigma caused by HIV/AIDS, I also went home wondering if the conference and its theme was a politically-correct one, adopted to align us superficially to the UN, in the eyes of the international spectator. And even if this was not the reason, was the theme then only targeted at or is relevant to only Singaporeans living with HIV, and not towards everyone regardless of race, language, religion or nationality, as it should rightly be?
What I have written here may not change regulations or move much ground – for now, though I remain hopeful – but all I ask is that as fellow humans, we can maybe start to think a little more about the processes we have entrusted our authorities to put in place to ensure clock-work efficiency. And in the light of World AIDS Day on 1 December, maybe, just maybe, we could look a little more critically – and intelligently – at our internal practices, for the sake, and love, of all humanity.
“Let us now look at zero discrimination. This is the overarching theme that transcends all others. We cannot stop the spread of HIV infection until we make major headway against the stigma and discrimination suffered by persons living with HIV and the most affected communities.”
– Professor Roy Chan, Co-Chair, 8th Singapore Aids Conference, November 2012.