Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nicholas Snow - an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate.

This interview is an inspiring one where one man tries to make a difference after he learned that he has HIV. This interview appears in the sun on Friday July 15.

Suggested Headline : Serving people with HIV

American Nicholas Snow, 49, was diagnosed with HIV four years ago. He talks to BISSME S about his goal of becoming one of the world’s biggest cheerleaders for HIV testing and safer sex, and giving people living with HIV hope.

What do you do?

I have been a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok for more than five years. I publish my own commercial travel and entertainment websites and freelance for other media; I act and appear in commercials; I sing and write songs; and I am an HIV/AIDS
awareness advocate.

You have started a campaign to raise greater awareness of HIV. What is the campaign about and what motivated you to start it?

On Jan 3, 2008, I tested HIV positive. It was a shock as I had become HIV positive decades into the AIDS epidemic, completely armed with the knowledge to protect myself. In a moment of passion in August 2007, I made a poor decision to have unsafe
sex. Determined to prevent as many people as possible from making the same mistakes, I went public with my story and ultimately created the The Power To Be Strong HIV Testing/ Safer Sex Awareness Campaign.
The cornerstone of the campaign is a music video subtitled in more than 20 languages. I recently officially launched the campaign in Malaysia with Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin subtitles. The video is available for viewing at ThePowerToBeStrong. Indirectly, the campaign here will also spotlight the lifesaving work of the Kuala Lumpur based Pink Triangle Foundation ( The object of the whole campaign is to inspire
people to take an HIV test and to practise safer sex. Tragically, most people who are HIV positive learn they are because they become ill and seek medical attention way past the point at which medical interventions could have helped prevent illness to begin with. The key is for people who have HIV to know it, stop spreading it,

Will a song make a difference to a person struggling with HIV?

Yes. How many people turn to music in their time of sorrow? How many listen to love songs when they have a broken heart? How many people are inspired by songs such as The Wind Beneath My Wings? Now a song exists to address the fears and concerns of someone who may have HIV. Before I came to Malaysia, I received a message from a Facebook user explaining that only two people in the world know he is HIV positive,
and he went on to say: “I listen to your song every morning and it gives
me the strength to face my day.”
I wrote and recorded the song in 2009. Bruno Brugnano, a leading music producer in Thailand, produced it with beautiful background vocals by Ayano Kimura, and renowned movie and music video director O Nathapon directed the video. The song reaches into the hearts and souls of people and gives them hope. The video is aimed at empowering people worldwide, and I would be honoured if recording artistes want to record the song in their own countries and in their own
language for their own fans, so the message can reach as many people as possible. It is important for people to know they are not alone in this battle.
Many people dealing with HIV feel isolated, lonely, hopeless and sometimes suicidal. My goal is to be one of the world’s biggest cheerleaders, inspiring people to get tested, live longer and be strong.

How many people are involved in the campaign? How is it funded?

I have volunteered basically full time on the campaign for two years, donating my earnings from journalism, acting and web publishing to support the cause, and a small group of key supporters have donated money and time to keep the campaign going. The campaign has reached millions of people worldwide and is
dependent on ongoing donations. Anybody who makes a PayPal donation to Orbit@NotesFrom will be acknowledged on a Facebook page called The Action Heroes, and anyone who wants to make a major donation may send me a
direct message on my page at

What did you do on first learning you were HIV positive?

I had unsafe sex which resulted in a severe flu-like illness a few weeks
later. I went to one of Bangkok’s major private hospitals and the doctors ruled out the flu. Then I found myself sitting face to face with an infectious disease
specialist who explained that my symptoms could be the result of a recent acute HIV infection. I played dumb. I did not share that I had recently had unprotected sex. I left with a scheduled follow-up appointment, but never showed up for it. I was in denial.

How did you come to terms with your situation then?

Five months later on Jan 3, 2008, I was confirmed HIV positive at an anonymous testing site. One of my new year’s resolutions was to get tested. I still could not believe this had happened to me. I asked myself “why did I have unprotected sex?” The answers: I was depressed at the time and not focused on taking care of
myself. I was with a sexual partner who said and believed he was HIV
negative. I had a false sense of security about remaining HIV negative so far
into the epidemic. None of these are good reasons, but they are human
reasons. After months of soul searching, I decided it was my moral responsibility to tell my story to hopefully prevent others from making the same mistake. I
become a name and face of HIV in a part of the world (Asia) where there are very few HIV positive people who self-identify at the level of press, radio and
television. While I am not Asian, I have become the most visible openly-HIV positive person in Asia in a way that empowers and inspires not only Asians, but
countless people everywhere

What are the greatest misconceptions about HIV?

There are at least three major misconceptions about people living with HIV. First, these people for some reason deserve to have it because of some sort of moral shortcoming. Second, HIV only impacts others and “it won’t happen to me”. Third, one must be promiscuous to get HIV. In fact, it takes only one unsafe sexual
encounter (penetrative sex without a condom) to transmit HIV, and often, people are exposed to HIV by their trusted partner who is unaware they have the virus.
Most Malaysians believe that only intravenous drug users are at risk of HIV when sharing needles, but studies show that 48% of new HIV cases in Malaysia are through
unprotected sexual contact.

Your first advice to someone who finds he or she has HIV?

I would say “you have made the best decision in your life to get tested. Knowing will save your life and allow you to protect your future partners”. HIV is a death
sentence only for people who don’t know they have it, and don’t seek treatment, and
ultimately get AIDS as a result.
Antiretroviral medication is proven to prevent the onset of AIDS for decades, allowing people living with HIV to stay healthy, provided they have access to medication and take it as directed. It is also proven that these medications dramatically reduce by as much as 98% an HIV positive person’s ability to
transmit the virus to someone else, so treatment is prevention.

Tell us about discrimination a person with HIV faces.

There is a tremendous amount of stigma and misunderstanding when it comes to HIV. It causes people to be rejected by their friends, family and loved ones. In many places in the world you can be fired from your job. If you are a foreign worker in Singapore and in many other countries, you will be expelled if they learn you
are HIV positive. Also, many countries do not allow foreigners known to have HIV to enter the country as tourists or for work.

What can governments do?

They can provide access to adequate healthcare and medication for people with HIV. They can work to eliminate forces that foster stigma and discrimination against HIV infected and affected communities, ensuring everyone the fullest opportunity to live open, free and healthy lives.

What is your view of the role the government here has played?

I am totally impressed that in Malaysia the government provides anti-retroviral medication to its citizens living with HIV. In many parts of world, this is not the case, and treatment is not affordable and/or available to people who need it. I congratulate the government for providing the medication to those who need it. They can use the government-owned media to fight stigma against people with HIV/AIDS and promote testing and safer sex.

There are religious figures who have claimed only sinners get HIV and AIDS.

I clearly don’t agree, but regardless of what people think right or wrong expressions of sexuality may be, I think we can all agree that sex happens. It is important to note that many MSM (men who have sex with men) also have wives and girlfriends; so many women are being infected unknowingly by their partners.
HIV is transmitted by people’s behaviour, not their identities. My goal is to encourage anyone who is going to be sexually active to use condoms, and anyone who has had unprotected sex, to have an anonymous HIV screening at a safe place such as the Pink Triangle Foundation. If you look at the spectrum of people who are living with or are at risk of HIV, they come from all walks of life. The reality is we should show everyone living with HIV compassion,
regardless of religious and moral perspectives.

What was your first reaction to realising you were homosexual?

I prefer the term “gay man”. My coming out as a gay man was very similar to others – overcoming unjust shame and guilt because of what I had been taught about gay people; slowly learning to love and accept myself just as I am; and ultimately making a decision to live openly, honestly and powerfully, while hopefully inspiring others to do the same; and expressing gratitude for role models who came before me.

How has being HIV positive changed your life for the better?

In choosing to go public, every day I get to use my life force, my creativity to serve other people. I have no secrets, no fear of people finding out about my status, and no shame. I get to live fully and powerfully every day.

What is the biggest challenge NGOs face in raising awareness of HIV?

I don’t work for an NGO but I know enough about them to answer the question. There is a dramatic shortage of funding at all levels in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The major funding sources, both globally and within countries, do not provide “core funding” to NGOs on the front lines. So while these passionate, dedicated individuals are devoting their lives to helping others, they are constantly struggling to get by.

Monday, July 11, 2011


The interview with the latest national laureate Dr Ahmad Kamal Abdullah or better known as Kemala appeared in the Sun newspaper on July 1, 2011.

Title Enriching literature

DATUK DR AHMAD KAMAL ABDULLAH was recently announced the 11th Sasterawan Negara (national laureate). The 70-year-old poet and writer of short stories, known by the pen name Kemala, has had his work translated into eight languages. The author of Titir Zikir and Pelabuhan Putih tells BISSME S. about taking literature to
greater heights.

What was your first reaction on winning the Sasterawan Negara award?

When a friend of mine first sent me a text that I had been given the award, I thought he was pulling my leg. In the preceding months, the media had been highlighting that 10 men had won the title and that it was the right time to
give it to a woman. So I was surprised when I found out.

Some say female writers have not produced work to qualify for the award.

I disagree; two names immediately come to mind – Dr Fatimah Busu and Dr Zuriana
Hassan. The themes they talked about in their work are very mature and have international appeal. In fact, there are a few non-Malays writers who write in the language such as Lim Swee Tin, who can be considered for this

There is a belief that there is Malay male domination over the award.

I don’t think there is any kind of dominationor monopoly over the award. Let us not
politicise Sasterawan Negara by bringing in race and gender. Let us give the panel the freedom to select the right candidates for the title. Let us just look at the candidate for his contributions to literature. When the time is
right, a woman and a non-Malay will get the award.

What is your opinion of the development of Bahasa Melayu in the country?

Grammatically, the language is getting weaker. We like to mix Malay with other
languages. Same goes with English. The use of the English Language is also deteriorating in the same way.

Some see English as a colonial language.

People who hold this kind of thought do not value knowledge. The Quran has always
encouraged us to enhance our knowledge, and mastering different languages is one way of doing that. Some Indonesian intellectuals and politicians know more than eight languages. They don’t see mastering different languages as a bad thing. So why should we?

Is it true to say that today’s youngsters are not interested in serious literature?

Yes, they are more into pop culture. Electronic media pushes them in that
direction. If we want serious literature to be popular among youngsters, then our
education system must emphasise it. Serious literature should be
taught from kindergarten.I remember during my school days, we had weekly literature competitions and literary clubs. My friends and I recited poems at these competitions. All these efforts, indirectly, created a love of literature in
In the old days too, when a friend had a birthday, we would make up poems and
recite them as a birthday gift. But now all we do is walk into a
shop and get a greeting card.
In the 60s, a handful of poets and writers got together in Puan Azah Aziz ’s house – she is a culturist who promotes Malay tradition and culture – with an adviser from the Education Ministry.
We brainstormed ideas and even produced a poetry book targeted at children. But we no longer do that sort of thing. Schools could also arrange a meeting
between the Sasterawan Negara and their students.
There could be creative ideas exchanged. The students would likely treasure
moments like these and remember them. The media can also play a role in making serious literature popular among youngsters.

What kind of a role can the media play?

Maybe carry interviews with serious literary figures on ad hoc basis – perhaps once in three months, or better still monthly. This will create more awareness of serious literature.

What is your opinion of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)?

The government should give serious attention to making DBP a powerful institution, not only for serious Malay literature, but also for serious literature in any
language produced in this country.
DBP should take on the task of translating serious Malaysian literature of different
languages into Bahasa Malaysia. I would like to read what Malaysian Chinese and Indian writers are writing about our country and about us, as Malaysians. The same principle should apply to all native languages in this country. If there
is a book written in Kadazan, then DBP should translate that too.
It could even create an award for Malaysian literature initially produced in different languages. That will encourage more to write in different languages.
DBP should organise solid writing programmes for youngsters in order to produce a new generation of writers who writes serious literature. I expressed this idea to DBP a long time ago and they were keen on it, but I have not seen them acting on making it a reality.
Our themes in serious literature should be broader. In the past, our literature
centred on the survival of the Malays because it was relevant to the times. But now
the survival of Malaysia should be our theme. We should also focus on the lives of the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak to give our literature a wider appeal. But of late, I have seen some positive changes slowly taking place in DBP.

Many Japanese, Indian and Chinese novels have been translated into English and sold worldwide. Do you think Malay literature has the substance to appeal globally

One novel that comes to mind is Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan. But to make a mark globally, having a great theme is not enough. We need to promote the book as well and our promotion is very weak. The terrible thing is that the Malaysian authorities do not give any support to promoting Malaysian literature outside of our country, and I am speaking from experience.
Last April, an Indonesian organiser was promoting two of my poetry books in Jakarta
and I was there for the launch. I had made a polite request to the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta to send at least one of their representatives to the launch to show some support – it would have been great to have someone official from the Malaysian government representing Malaysian literature launched overseas – but no one turned up. I must admit I was a little embarrassed and upset.
(Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan was made into a Cambodian film entitled Rice People in 1994. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was submitted for the 67th Academy Awards. It was the first time a Cambodian film had been submitted as a possible nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.)

What is the biggest change you would like to see in Malaysia?

I live in a multiracial neighbourhood. My neighbour on my left is an Indian and on my right, a Chinese. We get along very well. I want to see more truthful unity among
the races. At this moment, I must say our unity is very artificial. Our tolerance for each other is artificial too. We don’t sit down and sincerely discuss the problems affecting us as Malaysians. We suppress our emotions and real problems and that is not very healthy.

Did anyone inspire you to be a writer?

My mother and my wife. Both these women played an important role in my life. My mother loved reciting poems and telling me folk stories when I was young. She was the first person who exposed me to the world of literature. One of
my fondest memory of my mother was during the fasting month. She and I would go the
nearby forest to find pucuk paku to make nasi ulam.
My wife is my fierce and honest critic. She will tell me honestly when my work is good and when it is not. She gives me constructive criticism so I can better my work.

You have been married 47 years. What is the secret to a lasting marriage?

When she is angry, I will keep quiet, and when I am angry, she will keep quiet. When her anger gets too much for me, I will just leave the house (laughs)