Nine years ago, I interned at PT Foundation during my university break.
PT Foundation describes itself as a community-based, voluntary non-profit making organization providing HIV/AIDS education, prevention, care and support programmes, sexual health and empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities in Malaysia.
They serve these five communities in Malaysia: Drug users, sex workers, the transgender community, men who have sex with men (MSM), and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV).
They offer services such as anonymous and confidential HIV screening and telephone counselling and face-to face counselling whereby they address people’s questions and concerns on HIV/AIDs. They also work with gay men and other MSN (Men who have sex with Men) to offer information and support regarding HIV and sexuality. There are other programs as well concentrating on the transgender community, sex workers and also drug users.
The organization left a positive impression on me during my internship and so I decided to interview its chairperson Hisham Hussein recently to know more about the organization’s background and vision.
Can you tell me how PT Foundation started?
PT was started in 1987 by a small group of people, comprising of gays, lesbians, heterosexuals, and volunteers from Befrienders. A handful of the pioneers were people who just graduated from oversea studies.
The intention was to assist young Malaysians to deal with their sexuality issues similar to the Befrienders and Samaritans i.e. provide counselling. This is also one reason why Befrienders joined in the pro-tem committee. In 1986, Malaysia had its first HIV case and at that point in time AIDS was dubbed as a gay disease.
Hence, PT also embarked in providing basic information on HIV working with University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) such as Professor Violet Howe and Professor Rokiah who were the key physicians treating HIV then.
The first program we ran was the telephone counselling line which provides basic para-counselling on HIV and sexuality including referrals. This still runs to this day.
Can you tell me how you got into this line? What is your educational and work background?
For me, I was in the second batch, so to say. I volunteered to do counselling and join their training session. A friend of mine who was in the pro-tem committee invited me in as a volunteer. Before I know it I started to be more involved in developing programs, got elected in the exco, etc. The rest is history.
I decided then, why not and attended the training sessions. I never looked back then. I went to Brighton in UK and did my civil engineering degree there. In 1980, I worked with Tenaga Nasional (or TNB - Malaysia’s electricity provider) as I went under their scholarship. I was a civil engineer, worked in the TNB Hydropower Dam construction and retired as Chief Civil Engineering under TNB Distribution. One thing I must say is that at TNB, my bosses encouraged my volunteering doing HIV works and never questioned me.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles in starting and also running PT Foundation?
Funding! Of course with more funds, we can do many more programs covering many areas and issues as has been proven over the years. People forget that whatever we are doing, we are actually assisting the government in addressing issues and provide referrals to fellow Malaysians irrespective of their background.
PT has been branded as a gay or LGBT organisation. The main reason being we provide services to marginalised communities such as LGBT. People forget or choose not to see that we our services also covers other communities such as Injecting Drug User (IDUs), single mothers including children infected and affected with HIV as well as other fellow Malaysians at large i.e. the heterosexuals. This means the whole population in Malaysia. We also work very closely with the Ministry of Health and the Women Ministry and the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (JAWI). Our main focus is public health.
Tell me your vision of PT Foundation for say, the next 5 to 10 years.
Our Social Enterprise program which we have embarked since 2007 i.e. our VCT program, will be our core funding to sustain the whole organisation. Our vision is not to expect and depend on funds from third parties especially from government agencies as those could run dry easily. We found out the hard way. Our focus is sill and will always be public health irrespective of the person's background i.e. who or what the person is. We would like to see PTF expand nationwide. The population we serve has to expand according to the needs of the people and country. Of course the key word is "self-sustainability".
What do you think is PT Foundation’s biggest achievement/milestone so far?
Our biggest achievement is to be identified as key leaders in the HIV world in Malaysia. We are identified as far as the key populations are concerned as "their NGO". We are the pioneers and the pro tem in the setting up of Malaysian AIDs Council (MAC) and Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF). We are known not only in Malaysia but also at regional and global level.
What are some goals that you hope PT Foundation will achieve in the future?
Ending AIDS. We hope that the key populations themselves would take over the operations of PTF and decide the directions as that was how PT was set up, evolved and they would have to decide the directions. For the past few years, scenarios have changed and become fluid in a sense that the organisation became a business-as-usual organisation mainly due to a lot of fire-fighting with survival issues.
I would imagine that there are a lot of prejudice, misconception and discrimination of the groups that PT serves e.g. men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders, etc. Have you received brickbats for your work? And if so, how did you manage/respond to that?
Always keep our head high and believe in what we do. Be professional and transparent. Whilst we take heed or note at what is around us, we must not let those affect our objectives. The public health sector and government agencies knows what we are doing so we are not "worried". We only respond on a need basis and not get emotionally charged by comments from others. Over the years we learn how to deal and manage circumstances and shots fired at us. Never be defensive.
Have you faced questions by Muslims for the work that you serve? If you could explain to our more conservative Muslim readers about the need for the work that you do, how would you do it?
Of course. Our problem is that when the media begins to sensationalize issues and communities we serve. Behind closed doors, I do not have any problem working with the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) and the Federal Territory Islamic Religious (JAWI) and we have worked with them. They do understand what we are doing and the Ministry of Health (MOH) has always backed us in the HIV world. There are so many ways to skin a cat, we need to be smart.
What sustains PT Foundation to be one of the leading NGOs in Malaysia that it is today?
Hmmm....susah nak jawab (hard to say). I really think mainly because there is always the communities needs that has never stopped. With or without funds we just do the best we could. More funds equals more projects - that’s the basis. Passion and the determination being with the communities drive the staffs and volunteers and not to forget the stigma and discrimination.
How important is the support of your family and friends towards your work?
My family.... they all know what I am doing. It is never an issue. Friends come and go depending on their focus. I always treat whatever comes by as bonus and never to expect too much as one may be disappointed.
What sustains your passion to keep leading PT Foundation?
Good question! Suppose I have seen too much out there in the streets of Chow Kit, people die in back lanes, families do not want to know when you die of AIDS etc.
PT Foundation welcomes interns and volunteers. Visit their website to know more or to access their services.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.