Undergrads from NTU, Scott, Ann, Kim and Joyee (pictured), are the drivers behind Paint the Town Red, an online movement dedicated to increase awareness, and debunk myths about HIV among youths
(like, in a totally cool way – i.e. not in the gahmen way. er, HPB, consider yourselves tagged.)
Determined to inject relevance and a fresh perspective to what they see as “outdated” sex education for youths, the four have been working with hospitals and agencies across the island to come up with lively infographics, such as the one below, that address everything from the medical to social aspects of the disease.
These infographics can be found here and here, but are not the only way that they plan to get youths to take charge of their sexual health. As the campaign kicks into high gear, they’ve roped in ambassadors such as Nat Ho and Benjamin Kheng to feature in their publicity materials that will be released in the months to come.
The four of them share their most memorable experiences, along with insights gained from working on a healthcare campaign with government agencies in Singapore, and why they are so anxious to make a difference.
What’s Paint the Town Red about?
S: Many people are aware of the pink and yellow ribbons, but less so the red ribbon. It was, in fact, the first ribbon “conceptualised” to show support for a cause. The red ribbon represents awareness of HIV and support for people living with HIV (PLHIV). We incorporated the red ribbon in our logo to show the relation between our campaign objectives and the ultimate fight against HIV/AIDS and stigma.
It’s especially important for young people as they are becoming more sexually active but the national stance is – don’t do it. But if you say that then you’re neglecting a large portion of people who are already doing it.
How do you plan to keep youths informed about HIV?
S: We plan to reach out to young people through more digital media. It’s very awkward to talk about it still in public. So we to give them an avenue to learn about these things at their own time. A lot of campaigns, they are great campaigns that the hospitals have done, but they are limited to the hospitals. That’s quite a waste. How many young people hang out at Tan Tock Seng (Hospital)?
What led you guys to choose this cause, out of everything out there?
S: I was supposed to meet a friend, but he said he had to do something at a certain area first. I knew that the DSC clinic was nearby so I just casually asked if it was related. It was then that he told me.
I think what was most shocking to me was that one of the first things he said right after was “Would you still be my friend?” Over the next few months, I accompanied him to as many medicals as I could, cos you know, even if he doesn’t say so, I’m sure it’s nice to have someone around. It’s just frustrating that he, and many others living with HIV, has to keep that part of his life secret, cutting out essential support groups that could help him cope better, live better. When anybody falls ill, they receive the care and concern of those around them, but PLHIV can’t and don’t. Some people might think even worse of them. It needs to change.
K: We had already decided we wanted to do something about healthcare. When Scott shared this, we thought that it (promoting this cause) would be challenging but also fulfilling.
A: It’s also the fact that when he told us about it we realised didn’t know much about it (HIV). If people were informed, they would act differently.
K: That generally reflects the youth mentality – they’re detached from it and it’s very superhero syndrome, like, HIV will never touch me. And it’s because of all these myths and misconceptions that they have about HIV in general. There is also information that cannot be accessed unless you have already been diagnosed (with the virus), which we feel is messed up. It’s a bit victim-blaming. If the information is out there for everyone, it would be better for everyone.
What is wrong with the information that is currently out there?
K: Some of the information is there, some is not. For example you don’t know what treatments are available until you go and see a social worker, after you’ve been diagnosed.
J: It’s not about actively seeking the information either. Even if you try, you can’t get it unless you have HIV. And you’ve been made to go through all the processes then you find out.
K: The collaterals are quite hard to read.
A: And a bit outdated sometimes.
How would knowing about treatments help you protect yourself?
S: If you’re sexually active you’d go get tested. Some people don’t get tested because, “Oh no what if I get tested and I get HIV. What am I going to do?” We want them to know it’s not the end of the world. You’d get counselling, help. You don’t have to pay for these things. There’s no need to be afraid. If you’re sexually active, protect yourself, protect your partner, get tested. HIV can stay in your body for ten years, no symptoms. In 2014, half of the people who find out had AIDS, which is late-stage HIV. By the time people find out (that they have AIDS), treatment is more expensive, it’s less effective, you’re more susceptible to other diseases.
What has been done for the campaign so far?
S: We are working with Action for AIDS and the 3 main hospitals that deal with HIV care – TTSH/IIDE (Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology), NUH and SGH, with the support of KTPH, AH and CGH. The hospitals have been overwhelmingly supportive, taking time to assist us. I think there’s a general sense of wanting things to be better, but also having to work under a larger framework. Ben from Campaign.com has also given us a lot of his time to help us refine our campaign.
We’ve also had a live interview with 938LIVE but it’s always challenging to get issues like these across to mainstream media. I don’t know a topic more taboo. Definitely ranks high up there with paid-sex and drug use.
How’s the response?
K: While we were doing the survey (to find out what information was lacking in youths’ knowledge of HIV), you see gears turning in their heads. We asked, “What kind of sex ed did you receive in school?” There was a true false segment with questions like, “Is anonymous testing really anonymous?” We got asked in return: Is anonymous testing really anonymous? It just never occurred to people to think of those kinds of things until it was in front of them.
S: Young people have a lot of fears when it comes to jobs, or afraid that the government will keep a record. Also, the government cannot openly say that they are doing certain things to help people with HIV, because there will be certain people who be like: why are you supporting this kind of lifestyle?
Could you share an anecdote regarding your work on the campaign?
A: On World AIDS Day last year, we were at the CBD giving out red ribbons. There was one lady who took out her wallet and was so ready to donate. She said, “Excuse me, what’s this for?” We said, “It’s World AIDS Day.” And she was like “Sorry no.” She kept her wallet and walked off. We were like – “What?!” It’s this kind of thing… you’re on the streets and you just say it and people are already scared. First-hand experiencing that kind of discrimination! Everyone seems to think of it negatively. People seemed so scared about it, probably cos they don’t really know.
J: A month ago we met with a man living with HIV and his story struck me because up till that point, we’ve never heard anything about the disease. He was only diagnosed a month or two before we met him. He was taking it well. His story revolves around drug use and we heard about his family background. When we were talking to him, he broke out into dialect and mandarin. It kind of hit home for me. Sometimes we think that people get HIV because they engage in high-risk behaviors but I think sometimes it’s just “innocent”. It made me more invested in this project. We could see for own eyes how we can change the lives of people living with HIV.
Kim: We e-mailed Dr Amy Khor (Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Health), who took the time out of her schedule to say hi. She said that it was a good initiative for youths and she was the one who invited other ministers (to talk to us). I found her very inspirational. She said, “This is exactly what Singapore needs.” She wants us to keep her updated on the campaign. Before I met them I was like, oh we’re going to get into a lot of trouble for this project. We still do have challenges, but it just made me more encouraged to do it, because they all said, this is where YOU are important, this is where youths are important. Because youths can engage with other youths.
What would you like to see the government do to help this cause?
K: Move away from ABC, (abstinence, being monogamous, condom usage) or maybe expand it. When it revolves around the ABC guidelines, it neglects a huge part of population because we refuse to acknowledge that young people are sexually active and this kind of mentality is idealistic. It caters to more conservative members of society but what’s more important – pleasing people or protecting youths?
How do you think youths feel when they see ABC?
K: That’s why youths feel distant from it because none of the collaterals are relatable to them. When you don’t care about the collaterals, you don’t care about the disease, and you don’t feel that the disease is part of your life.
S: It’s one of those things where you are with the government or you are not (on this issue). If you tell me to abstain and I already am having sex then it makes me a rebel. The more I will not care. It’s a matter of being in touch with what’s on the ground and what young people are doing. They have lame information because they refuse to address real problems. They’ve top ten myths of HIV and one of the myths is you can cure yourself of HIV if you have sex with a virgin. No other medical website has that!
How do you think other Singaporeans can help the cause?
A: Cos we’re mostly online, they can share what we post with their friends. Essentially what we want is to start a conversation about it. The more you talk about it, the less of a taboo it becomes. The more you know the less you discriminate.
K: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We’ve gotten some very good questions on our Facebook page. Clarifying doubts will go a long way in assuaging fears.
S: Talk about it. It’s a lot about understanding, encouraging each other to be more responsible. Since I started finding out more, friends have started getting tested. Instead of being afraid, find out, get treatment, get a group of people who can support you. One of the main problems is people don’t talk about it. The government says it want to serve people. The tide starts changing, eventually there will be change. It starts with talking about it.
Jason, Senior Content Producer | Instagrapher
Jason is extroverted and obsessed with living in the moment. With that comes grave side effects such as compulsion, irrationality and short-term memory. A lover of the great outdoors and little bars, popular music and obscure movies, he’s a walking contradiction who fights to enjoy the best of both worlds.