Sir Elton John, Bill Gates, Liza Minnelli, Madonna and Victoria Beckham — the war against HIV/AIDS has garnered the support of some of the world’s most notable celebrities, a list that, in the past, included the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor and King of Pop Michael Jackson. And how can one forget the compelling image of Diana, Princess of Wales, at the paediatric AIDS unit of Harlem Hospital in New York, where she hugged a little boy who had HIV? That gesture radically helped reduce AIDS-related stigma, which is an ongoing process even as the battle to end it by 2030 continues.
The celebrity factor of a global AIDS response draws parallels with the star-studded nature of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation’s Red Ribbon Gala, a black-tie event held since 1996 to raise funds for MAF’s many programmes. It also relies on the big names it attracts to increase understanding of the disease, and chip away at the negative perception often associated with it. Due to its legacy of prestige, exclusivity and support from the highest level of government (it often has the prime minister of the day in attendance, which will be the case this year as well), the gala has always been a very attractive proposition for many donors.
This year, after a brief hiatus due to the coronavirus outbreak, it returns as the Sunway-MAF Red Ribbon Gala — and its needs are even more critical than ever as the MAF’s funds have plunged in the wake of the pandemic. Scheduled to be held on Oct 28, it has a new sponsor and outlook: a sustainable approach for the future.
“Professor Adeeba told me about the foundation, and of course, it’s a very good cause that she is taking up as chairman,” begins Sunway Group founder and chairman Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, referring to MAF chair Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman. “I was also told that it needed a bit of funds to support its work. Our philosophy has always been to leave no one behind and to help as much as we can. Although what we can do is just part of a bigger picture, we hope to inspire others to do the same — help the marginalised and the underprivileged.”
Cheah is being modest; Sunway plays quite a substantial role in MAF’s ongoing efforts. Outside of being venue host for the upcoming gala, it has awarded MAF a multi-year grant to support the latter’s work in Sabah and Sarawak, where the HIV/AIDS response is very different from that on the peninsula. In addition, Cheah sits on MAF’s sustainability committee that will enable the organisation to become more efficient, streamlined and better at raising funds.
“Until, of course, HIV/AIDS is eliminated, hopefully within our target of 2030, at which point MAF may not need to exist anymore,” adds Adeeba, who recently completed her tenure as president of the International AIDS Society. “The sustainability committee is for us to tap
Tan Sri’s skills in the business world to see how we can better generate income through other means, not just from the gala. The idea is to bring MAF to the next level so that we are financially sustainable and won’t need to ask for money all the time. We will still definitely need the assistance, but hope to do better at this on our own.
“The world has changed, and we are looking for other ways to raise funds, which I hope to rely on Tan Sri’s know-how to do … I’m a doctor, I only know how to spend money, not make it,” she laughs.
HIV/AIDS was first detected here in 1986 and we are ranked the seventh highest in adult prevalence in Asia after Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, with a 0.3% to 0.4% prevalence. Since the introduction of antiretroviral therapy, the number of cases all over the world has declined tremendously although Asia still has some way to go to reach the global target to end AIDS.
The news is not all bad, though. Malaysia was the first country in the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Region to be certified as having eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Additionally, since 2006, the first line of highly active antiretroviral therapy has been provided for free in government hospitals. HIV Connect, a self-paced, online learning platform designed for primary care physicians and other healthcare practitioners in Malaysia, was launched as a joint effort between MAF and the Malaysian Society for HIV Medicine to support doctors in the care and management of patients. Throughout all this, Adeeba has emerged to become one of the world’s foremost researchers on the topic, and brings to AIDS response in the country her many years of expertise.
Under her stewardship, MAF runs two major efforts: the Treatment Access Programme and the Red Ribbon Gala, of which Cheah is honorary chairman this year. The former is an umbrella initiative that aims to eliminate socio-economic barriers to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. The first flagship programme under this is the Medicine Assistance Scheme, which provides subsidised ARV to B40 patients living with HIV. It focuses on second-line ARV treatment that is presently outside the Ministry of Health (MoH)’s budget.
ARV drugs are expensive — when they first became available the cost was almost RM2,800 a month — and need to be taken for life.
“After the generic drugs were introduced, the cost came down and the government is able to support many more patients,” Adeeba shares. “But they only support first-line treatment, which some patients cannot take. Second-line treatment is more expensive, so the programme metamorphosised into assisting those who need it. Now, we have about 500 people on treatment. While it is true that prices have come down, they are still very costly.”
A second flagship is the Borneo Health Access Programme, which provides travel subsidies for B40 patients from rural Sabah and Sarawak to receive HIV treatment, care and prevention services that are available only at centralised MoH facilities.
“In the HIV world, we say, ‘Know your epidemic, know your response’. You have to tailor both prevention and treatment programmes according to the population you are working with. In terms of absolute numbers, there are fewer cases there than in Peninsular Malaysia as there are lower cases of drug use, used to be the most dominant mode of transmission. But they have other challenges. When we were in Kuching, I [challenged] to the team there to make Sarawak the first state to get new cases down to zero.”
Recently, Cheah joined Adeeba in Kuching on a visit to Teratak Kasih Tok Nan, a halfway house set up for rural Sarawakians in the city for treatment.
“The state government gave us the use of the house but, of course, we need to maintain it. There is also the cost of transport — that’s where Sunway has stepped in,” Adeeba says, to which Cheah adds, “I hope my presence will show that we care. We are all very busy, and I am so glad I took the time to go with Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba to visit the house. It’s a very good thing to have, because many people come from very far and this provides them a place to stay, and transport [during] treatment. Every little bit helps.”
This year, MAF’s Red Ribbon Gala is focussed on sustainability. For example, every aspect of the event is aimed at reducing wastage — the menu will only feature sustainably farmed local produce, single-use materials will be avoided where possible and all printed collaterals will be replaced with digital content. To promote community resilience, door gifts will be supplied by Komuniti Cakna Terengganu, a social enterprise venture operated by an HIV shelter in Kuala Berang.
During the gala, MAF will honour the winner of the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award — presented to the unsung community heroes who demonstrate exceptional leadership and resilience in their work to support communities affected by HIV/AIDS. The prize comes with a purse of RM20,000, a custom-designed trophy as well as a certificate of excellence.
On its part, Sunway is fully committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 agendas, and aspires to be Asia’s model corporation in sustainable development. Its five goals are transforming its portfolios to low-carbon cities, advocating a responsible value chain, developing a dignified workforce, investing in community inclusivity and respecting ethical principles.
“Everything we do must be sustainable,” Cheah says. “Mankind has done a lot of damage to this planet, and someone should take the lead to save it. We are all in this together and need to see how we can solve this problem for our next generation. Scientists say that by 2030, if we don’t do anything, our coastal cities will be submerged. You can already see the impact of climate change on the floods we are experiencing. I tell our internal business units this too; they have something called internal carbon pricing — if they don’t keep to the expected level, their bonuses will be affected. We are very serious about this! If everybody does the same, we can all make a difference.”
And then there is the other meaning of “sustainability”, relating to longevity. “HIV is a chronic disease, and both meanings of the word ‘sustainable’ apply to us — extending the lives of people living with HIV, but also ensuring the continuity of the organisation,” Adeeba chimes in. “Times are hard, but every year we still need to raise funds to keep the programmes going. The Treatment Assistance Scheme actually keeps patients alive and we need the funds to help them acquire life-giving medication. Sustainability is an SDG and part of Sunway’s ethos, so it all fits in quite nicely.”
“I look at things on a very long-term basis. I’m an accountant, and although they traditionally look at things in 12-month gaps, I tell my people we have to look long term,” Cheah shares. “For us at Sunway, we look at three Ps: people, planet and prosperity. Not profit! When all of us are prosperous, all of us are happy. If we can achieve the 17 SDGs, we will all be so happy! I don’t think it is possible in my lifetime, but at least something is being done right now. I am almost a spent force, but I am very concerned about the next generation.
“I focus on leading by example. I aspire to get others to do the right thing. What I am doing is just a small thing, but if more people follow suit, the world will be a better place. I aspire to inspire before I expire,” he quips.
This year, the Sunway-MAF Red Ribbon Gala will be headlined by Indonesian songstress Krisdayanti — very much living up to the event’s reputation of attracting the best possible entertainment.
“Ever since Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir started this gala, it has always been a glamorous affair and we want to maintain that. Each year, we target to raise at least RM2 million — our table sales are known to be very high for this reason, but we aim to give guests an experience that befits the cost,” Adeeba says.
“What is most critical for us this year is the Sunway name. If Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah is associated with helping us destigmatise HIV, that’s a huge win for the movement in Malaysia. There are many people who don’t understand it and to see Tan Sri lending his name to it is significant.
“In Malaysia, we are registering about 2,500 to 3,500 new cases a year, but if we know all the people who have HIV and can treat them, we can reduce transmission. We kind of know what we have to do, but there are certain constraints — like the shame surrounding this disease.”
Just eight years away from the global goal of eliminating HIV/AIDS, it is surprising to know that awareness is still an issue — the negativity associated with the disease has a lot to do with a lack of knowledge, and the battle to end AIDS cannot be won without better understanding.
“It’s about changing mindsets,” Cheah agrees. “People living with HIV shouldn’t be stigmatised or treated any differently. Education is critical. If I hadn’t got involved with MAF, I wouldn’t have known what I know now. I am educated and that reduces stigma.”
The room falls quiet; clearly, everyone is deep in thought after Cheah’s last comment. When the conversation picks up again, it is about the gala and Sunway group’s generous contribution in terms of time and effort — hosting a dinner is no small feat, Adeeba says gratefully, and Cheah smiles. “There is so much suffering in the world, it is not hard to do something small in your own circle to make a difference.”
This article first appeared on Oct 24, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.