Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao (1929 - 2017) served as a Methodist pastor in Malaysia and Singapore before being consecrated the first Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore from 1968 to 1973. He was elected as the General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia between 1973 and 1985 and was directly involved in social justice issues, ministering to the marginalised and oppressed in the region.
In 1988, he accepted an invitation to be Visiting Professor of World Christianity, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA. He also taught in summer school at the Vancouver School of Theology, Canada in 1990.
Rev. Yap was on the Council of the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore and was committed to the promotion of inter-faith dialogue and understanding. He served as the Pastoral Advisor of the Free Community Church, which counts many LGBT Christians in its congregation.
Early life in MalaysiaEdit
Yap was born in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan in 1929, the first child of a court interpreter and his wife. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Kampar, Perak where he attended primary school – ACS Kampar – from 1935 onwards, while his elder sisters were in the same secondary school. In addition, he attended a traditional Chinese school in the afternoon which he continued through the years, even passing the Senior Cambridge examination in the Chinese language.
On the home front, aside from being taught to be friendly and polite by his mother, Yap forged deep and lasting bonds with the family’s Tamil driver and a Chinese maid. As he recalled, “they took good care of me and became part of the family.” Although having the services of these retainers may sound privileged by today’s standards, it was commonplace enough even among modest, middle class families then.
In the case of the family driver with whom the relationship continued until he passed away, the driver's youngest grandson recently traced Yap through the Internet. The grandson, Gani Selvanayagam Kailasam, practises law in Ipoh and is an ACS Ipoh alumnus, to boot.
The maid, in recounting the story of a poor farmer grinding a steel rod into a needle, taught Yap “to persevere in spite of hardships in life.” Another lesson learnt at her knees was the importance of education, exemplified by the tale of a student “who has to study at night by the light of the glow worms.”
Permanent injury during Japanese occupationEdit
With visits by his cousins and romps in the outdoors, Yap’s early childhood passed happily enough until the Japanese invasion when they lost their home. In a rented house, Yap’s mother helped out making and selling cakes while he himself tried his hand as a young ‘petition writer’; peddling local fruit; working in a cigarette factory to roll cigarettes; and helping out at gambling stalls set up in an amusement park.
It was at the amusement park where he had gone to watch a movie that bad luck struck. One of a group of Japanese military policemen (MPs) sitting behind him decided for no apparent reason to beat him up severely. Although his father attempted to protect him, it was to no avail.
By the time the MPs got tired of their game, Yap’s leg had been broken. He was brought home but Chinese traditional treatment did not help and he was in great pain until the end of the WW2 with the return of the British forces.
It was almost a year after the fracture that he underwent surgery and suffered 3 agonising months as he lay in bed to recover. The result was that Yap lived since then with one leg 3 to 4 inches shorter than the other. Tellingly, as a measure of the man, he declined efforts by various well-meaning people regarding how he could disguise his handicap while lesser folk would perhaps have succumbed to vanity.
The surgery was carried out in Ipoh where the family had moved to and Yap attended the Secondary Three (nowadays, Form Three) class of ACS Ipoh, a bright student but one unable to participate in outdoor activities due to the pain in his leg.
Introduction to MethodismEdit
Earlier, through his friend Yip Yat Loong, Yap had been introduced to the “peace and meaning of Sunday worship services” in Kampar and later, in Ipoh, he joined the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF). It was the warmth of the MYF members, particularly Festus Havelock, who visited him regularly while he was recuperating in hospital that convinced him of “the attractiveness of the Christian religion.”
His connection with the Methodist Church took root and on Easter Sunday 1948, he was baptised by Rev. Ralph Kesselring and received into the Wesley Church, Ipoh. Unlike today’s fiercely religious charismatic pastors, he recalls his conversion in quiet, simple, down-to-earth terms. There were “no blinding light, no mysterious vision appeared, and no sanctified voices were heard. I was not slain. I did not speak in tongues. I was not prayed over. Just the simple act of compassion of a Christian led me to Christ.”
Studying in the U.S.A.Edit
After completing his secondary education, the next step for Dr.Yap was university but what and where? Although he was attracted to law, the cost that would be incurred through spending three years at the Inns of Court in London was beyond his family’s budget. So he turned to the U.S. where he heard it was possible to work while studying.
He applied to a few universities and was accepted by Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, which waived his tuition fees and gave him a chance to work on the campus to earn his keep.
Baldwin City, as he describes it, is “a small centre in the rural wheat and cattle-farming area of Kansas. It is almost frozen in time for little had changed when I visited it again fifty years later.” Here, in this ‘lily white’ community, the young Dr. Yap “cleaned floors, scrubbed bathroom and toilets…tried working on a farm…and I went to sell soft drinks during the American football games.” Nothing was below him and he talks about the dignity of honest labour, no matter how lowly.
When the term opened, Dr. Yap enrolled in biology, physics, chemistry as well as the arts, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology. Juggling a work schedule to earn his keep as well as attending lectures, he managed still to score well in the top ten per cent and he graduated second in a class of 102.
What the medical world lost (for Dr. Yap found he could not afford the cost of medical school), the Methodist world gained as Dr. Yap decided to enter the seminary at Boston University.
After 6 long years away, he returned to Malaysia as the first post-war overseas seminary graduate coming home to serve, initially at Wesley Church in Klang and then in Singapore. Three years later, Dr. Yap – with his wife whom he married while in Klang, and his two daughters and an infant son – spent two years pursuing his doctoral programme at Boston University while serving as pastor in East Bridgewater.
When he returned to Kuala Lumpur, he was appointed the first full time Asian pastor at Kuala Lumpur Wesley Church, breaking the tradition of American missionary pastors. It was “the first flush of independence of the country. The cry of Merdeka…was in the air and it was necessary for the church to keep up with this rapid political change,” he recalls.
Despite his full work load at the church, he forged a deep connection with Dr Tan Chee Khoon, the Opposition Leader in Parliament then. This connection “gave me the opportunity to be in touch with political developments in the country and region. I was able to raise with him concerns, particularly those affecting the church and provided him with religious perspectives on public issues.”
Meanwhile, within the church, the nationalistic feeling was growing apace. In the 1964 election for Bishop, the issue of autonomy had been raised but those who backed it lacked courage to carry it through. Instead, it fell back to the true and tried of electing Rev. Robert Lundy who would be the last American Bishop here. Through a myriad of negotiations and discussions on what autonomy would mean, elections were finally held in 1968 and Dr Yap became the first Asian Bishop at the young age of 39 when previous American Bishops had been in their 50s and 60s. From then on, it would be a journey of widening experiences and responsibilities for Dr. Yap, too numerous to recount here.
From being Bishop, his career segued into the larger circle of the Methodist family. With his involvement in the Christian Conference of Asia, he travelled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, even far flung islands of Barbados, Curacao, Guyana, the Pacific islands as well as parts of Africa and Russia. He became, in his words, “a global person”. His primary education was in Anglo Chinese School, Kampar and secondary education in Anglo-Chinese School, Ipoh, Malaysia. he obtained his Bachelor of Arts (Biology & Cheminstry) from Baker University, Baldwin City, kansas. His Master of Divinity and Doctor of theology Degrees were secured from Boston University School of Theology, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
His publications include Doing Theology in a pluralistic world and from Prepat to Colombo: History of the Christian Conference of Asia, 1957-1995.
He was confered with an hononary Doctor of Divinity degree of Baker University and was honoured with the Distinguished Alumni Award by Boston University School of Theology. The Order of Jerusalem medal was presented to him in recognition of his services in the World Methodist Council.
Involvement in LGBT activismEdit
- Main article: Rev. Yap Kim Hao's involvement in LGBT activism
In the 1990s, the gay son of one of Yap's close friends solicited his assistance to help his mother understand his homosexuality. Through him, Yap became acquainted with some gay men and lesbians and was able to better comprehend the problems they faced. They told him of the rejection they encountered in their homes, church and community. This reminded Yap of the discrimination against African-Americans in the United States before the Civil Rights movement. These marginalised people told him then that being gay was not a choice they made but an orientation they came to sense at a young age.
In 2003, Yap read that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in his interview with Time magazine, announced that the Singapore government would no longer discriminate against the gays in the Civil Service, even in sensitive positions (see main article: PM Goh Chok Tong liberalises employment of openly gay individuals in civil service). Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court, which which was a conservative institution, had repealed anti-sodomy laws and the Episcopal Church in the United States had voted to endorse the election of Bishop Gene Robinson who avowedly was gay. Robinson divorced his wife with whom he fathered two girls and went on to live with his same-sex partner. Yet, his former wife and daughters supported his election to be the first openly gay bishop. This constellation of events seemed to signal to Yap that the time had come for acceptance of homosexuality in society even in highly regulated and conservative Singapore.
Letter to The Straits Times forumEdit
It was with this realisation that Yap wrote a letter to the Straits Times forum, published on 18 July 2003, which brought him to the attention of the LGBT community. In it, he supported the right of LGBT individuals to live their life in peace, community and openness:
"I REFER to Mr George Lim Heng Chye's letter, 'Govt should rethink hiring of gays' (ST, July 15). Like him I, too, am 'a heterosexual man, married to a heterosexual woman and we have four heterosexual children (two male and two female)'.
Unlike him, I do not condemn homosexual people or their parents. I applaud the stance of the Prime Minister in announcing that the Government is more open to employing gays now.
The lack of understanding of the condition of homosexuality and the harsh homophobic views expressed in the letter are regrettable.
From my meetings with members of the gay and lesbian community, I have come to see them as normal human beings even though their sexual orientation is different from mine.
The professional mental-health organisations are clear and specific about homosexuality. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), no scientific evidence exists to support the effectiveness of any therapy that attempts to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. APA Executive Director Raymond Fowler states that 'groups who try to change the sexual orientation of people through so-called conversion therapy are misguided and run the risk of causing a great deal of psychological harm to those... they are trying to help'.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states: 'Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, as it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.'
The American Medical Association 'does not recommend aversion therapy for gay men and lesbians. Through psychotherapy, gay men and lesbians can become comfortable with their sexual orientation and understand the societal response to it'.
The American Psychiatric Association states: 'There is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation.'
The association also says: 'Gay men and lesbians who have accepted their sexual orientation positively are better adjusted than those who have not done so.'
Professor Seow Choon Leong of Singapore, currently Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, who edited the book Homosexuality And The Christian Community, gave this confession:
'I also used to believe homosexual acts are always wrong. Listening to gay and lesbian students and friends, however, I have had to rethink my position and reread the Scriptures.
'Seeing how gay and lesbian people suffer discrimination, face the rejection of family and friends, risk losing their jobs, and live in fear of being humiliated and bashed, I cannot see how anyone would prefer to live that way.
'I do not understand it all, but I am persuaded that it is not a matter of choice... I have reconsidered my views, I was wrong.'
In remaking Singapore, the Government is taking a forward step in recognising the rights of homosexuals. It is only right that we do not discriminate against anyone on account of race, religion or sexual orientation.
THE REVEREND DR YAP KIM HAO"
The editor of the Forum page called Yap to clarify a certain term that he had used. He was appreciative of his letter and wanted it to round out the debate in the press. The editor gave a certain degree of prominence to the letter and placed it alongside a short letter from a fellow Methodist who took the opposing view. Only one sentence was edited out of Yap's entire letter. The sentence was the one where he said that those who were homophobic were more likely to change their views when members of their family or friends came out of the closet. What Yap really meant was that those who held negative views about gays had never met any gay person or naively regarded homosexuality as a closed issue.
Writing the letter was a calculated move on Yap's part and he took advantage of the situation to declare publicly his personal views in support of the gay community. He knew full well the stance of the institutional Christian church on this issue. They predictably voiced their opposition. Yap wanted the public to know that there were clergy and lay members who could not accept the views of their churches in good conscience and there were those who were willing to declare it publicly. Many of Yap's friends joined him in support of the gay movement and by his action, he had forced others to think seriously and study the issue carefully. At least they could not be indifferent and continue harbouring their stereotypes and misconceptions of homosexuality.
Their interpretation of scripture was that homosexuality is a sin but Yap accepted other scholars who interpreted the few specific passages of the Bible differently. There were Biblical passages dealing more specifically and clearly about divorce than with homosexuality. Jesus spoke directly against divorce and did not utter a single word against homosexuality. They said that the church should reach out to love the sinner but hate the sin. This is seen to be hypocritical by the gay community. In what ways did they show their love for the sinner? One cannot love at a distance. They wanted gay people to change even though there was no form of acceptable therapy endorsed by the medical community. Gays were advised to be celibate. It was hard enough for a heterosexual to be celibate and it was unfair to impose that condition on the homosexual. They saddled homosexual men with guilt when most of them felt that God had made them that way. When some gay Christians wrote to church leaders seeking understanding and a dialogue with them, they did not even receive a response to their letter.
Safehaven & Free Community ChurchEdit
Clarence Singam, who had recently taken charge of Safehaven, a community of gay Christians and the LGBT-inclusive Free Community Church (FCC), came across the letter and soon found a way to locate Yap. Singam invited him to dinner and persuaded him to become part of FCC.
Safehaven was thrilled that Yap was willing and dared to come out openly to support them. It was a great source of encouragement to them. Coincidentally, Singam had received infant baptism at Wesley Methodist Church, Kuala Lumpur when Yap was a pastor there. Safehaven wondered about the cost of Yap's action but he assured them that it was a conviction on his part and that he regarded it as a calling from God to minister to the gay community. For those who were critical and negative of his action, it was not his problem but theirs. There had been no loss anyway. On the contrary, he had gained respect especially from the gay community who had been neglected for too long by the Church.
The members of Safehaven gathered for weekly cell group meetings and regular Sunday worship services. Their website www.oursafehave.com provided information about the organization and their activities:
“Safehaven is a group of Christians in Singapore who have been gathering since 1998 for prayer, bible study and fellowship. We are made up of different age groups, backgrounds and religious traditions. We are gay affirmative and celebrate the fact that we are all part of God’s diverse creation. Safehaven is an informal fellowship for gay and lesbian Christians. We believe that God is able and desires to bless gay and lesbian Christians without having to deny their sexuality. Safehaven is interdenominational and welcomes Protestant and Catholic members who are interested to integrate faith and sexuality in their lives as Christians."
Yap readily and lovingly accepted Safehaven's invitation to relate to them and participated in their support group meetings. After developing these relationships, he was more than convinced that I had a responsibility that he could not evade and must assume. This was the ministry that he must engage in during the limited time still available for continuing ministry after official retirement. Safehaven was considerate enough to be concerned that they would take too much of his time during his retirement years. Although they liked Yap to be a full-time Pastor, they were glad for him to serve on a voluntary basis as Pastoral Advisor. Yap was tasked to help them develop a Pastoral team and a church not exclusively for gays but a church which was inclusive.
What was encouraging was that Yap's daughter, Susan Tang, without any prompting on his part, witnessed his involvement with Safehaven and decided to become involved in this unique Christian community as well. Her contribution was recognised and she subsequently served as the Chairperson of the church council. Her son, Jinwei, who was doing National Service in 2003 volunteered to play the guitar in the worship team at Sunday service. The Yaps were a three-generation straight family standing in solidarity with the gay Christian community.
Safehaven members eventually formalised their Sunday worship and established the Free Community Church in 2004. The carefully crafted official statements described its mission:
"The FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH is a congregation of diverse individuals and families gathering to worship and grow as a Christian community. We desire to develop a vibrant heart relationship with God and a thinking mind relationship with the Bible. We do not believe in easy answers to life’s challenging questions but in a great and loving God who surpasses all understanding. Our, vision is to nurture Christ-centred cell group communities relevant to our times. The FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH affirms that all individuals are persons of sacred worth and are created in God’s image. Given the discrimination that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) persons still face in society, our Church affirms that same-sex relationships are consistent with Christian faith and teachings when lived out in accord with the love and commandments of Jesus. Instead, it is discrimination based on sexual orientation and homophobia that are inconsistent with Christian teachings. We welcome all LGBT persons to our family."
The vision of this inclusive church was that gays and straights accepted one another and membership was open to all. Another important factor was that it
included Christians of all denominations. It would symbolise more fully the principle of unity in diversity and become an authentic inclusive Christian community.
Anti-discrimination activism for people living with HIVEdit
Yap was also a strong and outspoken advocate against stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV/AIDS:
In 2012, Action for AIDS honoured Yap’s work with one of the first Red Ribbon Awards for his work through the Free Community Church to address discrimination and his broad advocacy to promote inter-faith dialogue on HIV/AIDS in various capacities including being an integral participant of the Singapore AIDS Candlelight Memorial religious prayers.
Yap Kim Hao Professorship in Comparative Religious StudiesEdit
Yap passed away from heart failure at 9.28am on Thursday, 16 November 2017 at the age of 88. His daughter, Susan Tang wrote that he fought every good fight he could with every fibre of his being. His work on earth was done and he had earned a well-deserved rest. Tang thanked everyone who had been his friend, comrade and faithful supporter all these years. He was always grateful he had so many companions on his pilgrimage. The obituary was published in the Straits Times on Saturday, 18 November 2017.
A 3-day wake on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 18 to 20 November 2017 was held, after waiting for the rest of his children to arrive from the US, at Mount Vernon Sanctuary's Purity Hall, 121 Upper Aljunied Road, Singapore 367878. On Sunday, 19 November and Monday, 20 November 2017, Purity Hall was opened up and joined with Cherish Hall next door to accommodate 180 guests. The Free Community Church conducted simple and informal celebration-of-life services (as was Yap's wish) at 8pm on each of the 3 nights. The hearse left for Mandai Crematorium at 9am on Tuesday 21 November 2017 and his body was cremated there at 10.30am.
- Yap Kim Hao, "MY WAY TO AFFIRMING GAYS", Blogspot, 22 January 2013.
- Leow Yangfa, "The Wounded Healer", I Will Survive, April 2013.
- "Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao: 1st Asian Bishop, Methodist Church", The Ipoh ACS Alumni Association, 2013.
This article was written by Roy Tan.