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27 Nov 2008

Malaysia's PT Foundation turns 21

Programme Director Raymond Tai takes time out from organising its annual RED Carnival to speak to Fridae about reaching young MSMs who "suffer from the 'not me' syndrome" and the challenges they face with the rise of political Islam.

First started in 1987 to cater solely to gay men in Malaysia, Pink Triangle Malaysia - as it was then called - has since evolved to provide support and care services to four other vulnerable communities: Maknyah (a Malay term for a male-to-female transgenders), commercial sex workers, drug users and people living with HIV.

Now known as PT Foundation, the non-profit community-based volunteer-run organisation is the first NGO in Malaysia to offer HIV/AIDS counseling, prevention, support and care services.

This weekend, volunteers will be out in full force at its RED Carnival held in conjunction with World AIDS Day. Held at Sungei Wang Plaza in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the event is organised yearly to raise the public awareness and create opportunity for public engagement in HIV preventions and education work.

PT Foundation now provides free anonymous HIV screening in Kuala Lumpur and Penang and is appealing for donations to continue to offer the facilities and services to enable gay men and MSM to make informed and responsible decisions in their own lives. (Link to donate online is provided at end of article.)

Top image: Raymond Tai, PT Foundation's Programme Director; snapshots from RED Carnival 2007
Raymond Tai, PT Foundation's Programme Director, tells readers how he got started 20 years ago and the challenges of having to work in an environment where harassment and raids by enforcement officers and tabloid 'scoops' are commonplace.

æ: When did you join PT Foundation? When and how did it all begin?

Raymond: Almost from the beginning - 20 years ago, one year after PT was founded. When it was set up in 1987, PT was called Pink Triangle Malaysia and we catered solely for gay men in Malaysia. Back then there was very little support for newly coming out gay men, so we started a phone counseling hotline for gay men to call on any issues relating to being gay including acceptance, relationship, safe sex, coming out to parents, family members, and friends.

At that time, the first cases of HIV hit Malaysia, and there was intense fear among the gay community and much stigma and prejudice against gay men as HIV carriers. Hence the counseling line also became a HIV information and counseling line, and we soon also offered HIV tests, referrals and support group for people living with HIV. This was later expanded to provide coverage to other, most at risks populations. PT Foundation became the first NGO in Malaysia to offer HIV/AIDS counseling, prevention, support and care services. PT turns 21 on this 21 Dec 2008 and it's been an amazing journey!

I was fortunate as I came out 26 years ago when I was in the UK doing my studies. I had the benefit of being able to see a counsellor, be part of a support group, and I had friends who were accepting, and - in UK then - being gay was becoming more acceptable.

Hence when I came home to Malaysia, I wanted to offer my services to help other gay men deal with their sexuality, so I joined PT Foundation. What has kept me at PT is the friendship and camaraderie that I gained from PT's other volunteers and staff. It has helped me in my coming out process, and at being a better person - more compassionate, less judgmental, and empowered.

æ: How does the group reach and engage gay men/MSMs to disseminate info?

Raymond: We use the time-tested NGO way of using Outreach and In-Bring. We outreach to gay men at clubs, saunas, massage centers and parks. We invite them to our drop-in center to take part in support group sessions, HIV screening, social outings, sports, coffee evenings, and other community events. The Internet has been a valuable tool as well, and PT is now investing more efforts to reach young gay men and other MSM through the Internet.

æ: What are the biggest issues facing gay men in Malaysia today?

Raymond: Local HIV screening among gay men indicates that 10 percent of those tested in the past 12 months are HIV positive. We are also getting an alarming incidence of gay men being warded in hospitals with AIDS which means they did not know of their HIV status for many years and only found out when they got admitted to hospital with opportunistic infections. We are now conducting a venue based HIV prevalence study among MSM to ascertain the actual prevalence and to use this study to seek more resources to convince gay men to practice safe sex.

Related to the increased rates of HIV in Malaysia is the widespread use of recreation drugs such as ecstasy during sex. We know that in many such instances, the use of condoms is often compromised or not used correctly; this has lead to higher incidence of unprotected sex among gay men. Coupled with the rise of group sex parties and bare-backing, the scenario for gay men in Malaysia is very worrying.

The marginalisation of gay men in Malaysia (as a result of the highly moralistic and conservative society, a hostile media and the rise of political Islam) has also led to a lack of a gay community culture and consciousness. This makes it difficult to inculcate a healthy responsible gay community that would look after itself and members of the community. Many gay men do not even identify themselves as gay. For some of them, it is all about anonymous sexual encounters, Internet hook ups, and one night stands. In such an environment, it has been challenging to engage gay men to change their unsafe sex behaviour.

Many gay men have never taken a HIV test, and do not discuss HIV with their partners before they engage in sex. This is compounded by the stigma that HIV+ gay men face within the community how many HIV postive gay men are comfortable in revealing their HIV status to their friends and sex partners? This has lead to a false sense of security among gay men - because they are not aware of many of their friends who could be HIV+, the assumption is that HIV only happens to 'other' people, not to their friends and the men that they are dating and/or are sleeping with.

æ: It was reported that PT Foundation almost had to close after 2005 due to lack of funding, how are things looking now?

Raymond: PT has been engaging the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Women, Family & Community Development, and the Malaysian AIDS Council on the need for financial assistance to engage most at risk populations, and they have responded positively. Unfortunately there are strict guidelines on how we can utilise the funds, and the funding is subject to annual review. It is also not enough to upscale our programmes.

We need a longer term revenue generation strategy that includes a more diversified source of funding; we would like to appeal to the gay community to donate generously. One small step is the donation page we have now launched on this website.

æ: What is the general attitude in Malaysia towards homosexuality?

Raymond: Historically there has been a tremendous level of ignorance to the point of bigotry among the masses, thanks to decades of entrenched prejudice and homophobia spread by the government, the local media and the religious bodies in Malaysia. Nevertheless, there is an emerging generation of Malaysians who are open minded, willing to learn and with the ability to make informed opinions and values. It is this younger generation that we are hoping will create a Malaysia that respects human rights and diversity.

æ: What are the challenges in trying to get the safer sex message across to MSMs?

Raymond: The older gay men suffer from HIV/AIDS fatigue - after two decades of dealing with HIV, some have let their guards down, possibly thinking that AIDS is no longer a fatal disease.

The young ones suffer from the 'not me' syndrome. Because it is not talked about, and they don't know any of their gang who are HIV positive (because gay men who are HIV+ do not reveal their status), there is a false sense of security that it is OK to not use condoms. 'Chem sex' is becoming a trend, often leading to unsafe sex.

All these is compounded by the dis-enabling environment that we operate in in Malaysia - the constant harassment and raids by enforcement officers on clubs, saunas, and massage centers, and the media 'scoops' of such places in the local tabloids have made it difficult for PT to conduct outreach work to these venues and the operators are reluctant to make condoms and lubes freely available in every locker and cubicle.

æ: What kind of HIV/AIDS treatment services are available to MSM in Malaysia? Are the treatments subsidised?

Raymond: The Malaysian government has made great strides in this area. All first line HAART treatment is free in all government hospitals and clinics. The Government also pays for two of the three second line drugs. Almost all the main drugs are available including the cheaper generic drugs. There is no discrimination against MSM.

æ: PT won the UNAIDS Red Ribbon Award for its Transsexuals Programme in 2006, and was one of the top five nominees for the 2007 New Straits Times Humanitarian Award for its programme on sex workers. PT also won the Malaysian NGO of the Year Award in 2008 by Resource Alliance International, and the Dr Siti Hasmah Award in 2008 by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation for 'Most Significant Contribution to HIV/AIDS work in Malaysia'. Can you tell us more about the programmes?

Raymond: PT Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental community-based organisation. We work with five vulnerable communities - MSM (men who have sex with men), Maknyah (Malay term for a male-to-female transgenders), commercial sex workers, drug users and people living with HIV - to help reduce HIV infection, and provide support and care to these communities. PT Foundation's approach is non-judgmental and non-confrontational, and dependant on volunteers.

Some of our services include running five drop-in centers that provide a safe space in the Klang Valley for the five different communities. We also conduct outreach to all these communities via peer-based outreach programmes at backstreets, brothels, saunas, massage centers, parks, hospitals and homes. We distribute condoms and lubricants by the thousands every day. We offer free and anonymous HIV screening and counseling to all the communities. For the drug user programme, we also run a needle and syringe exchange programme, methadone treatment referral, and provide free food, rest, shelter and basic healthcare. In the Sex Worker and Maknyah Programmes, apart from giving free food, rest, shelter, and healthcare, we also offer religious classes and skills workshops. All the programmes also have access to free legal aid. The Positive Living Programme offers counseling and support group service to people living with HIV. The MSM Programme also has a social support programme for gay men including weekly sports activities, monthly coffee gatherings, online forums, and community events.

World AIDS Day RED Carnival 2008
Venue: Fiesta Street at Sungei Plaza, Bukit Bintang
Date: 29th & 30th November (Sat-Sun)

PT Foundation now provides free anonymous HIV screening in Kuala Lumpur and Penang and is appealing for donations to continue to offer the facilities and services to enable gay men and MSM to make informed and responsible decisions in their own lives. (Link to donate online is provided below.)

For more details on drop-in centres and free anonymous HIV screening, visit ptfmalaysia.org.

To find a World AIDS Day event in your city, click on to fridae.asia/agenda.

Malaysia

Reader's Comments

1. 2008-11-27 21:14  
What an amazing organisation. I didn't realise they'd been going so long. I'm happy to write to friends and relatives in KL regarding fundraising if there's some sort of documentation I can send.
2. 2008-11-28 04:48  
a very noble foundation indeed. u guys need to have more volunteers i wonder how can i be one once i go back probably. need more presence in the mainstream media and society. wish u all the best !!!
3. 2008-11-28 14:28  
Bravo Raymond and Pink Triangle Malaysia! Keep up the good work! See you at Sg Wang! :-)

Cheers, JK
4. 2008-11-28 23:21  
Congratulations to the fabulous team at PT Foundation!

Dd Oetomo
on behalf of GAYa NUSANTARA, Indonesia
5. 2008-11-29 07:47  
Bravo Raymond! I'm a bit like you from 26 years ago - i'm 22 and studying in the uk and involved in lgbt empowerment activities. even led a contingent in london pride 2008. when i go back to kl for good, i'm so going to be involved in pt - someone started it, its for us to make it bloom. PT's actually one of the reasons i look forward to going back rather than starting a career somewhere else - its home and gives me sense a mission for my country. may many others feel the way i do.
Comment #6 was deleted by its author

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