Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao was born in 1929. He 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.
- 1 Early life in Malaysia
- 2 Studying in the U.S.A.
- 3 Involvement in LGBT activism as an ally
- 4 Anti-discrimination activism for people living with HIV
- 5 Yap Kim Hao Professorship in Comparative Religious Studies
- 6 Death
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Acknowledgements
Early life in Malaysia
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.”
Leg fracture during Japanese occupation
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 Methodism
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.
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 activism as an ally
Letter to The Straits Times forum
Yap came to the attention of LGBT Singaporeans when, on 18 July 2003, he penned the following letter in the Straits Times forum supporting 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"
Clarence Singam, who had recently taken hold of Safehaven and the Free Community Church (FCC), came across the letter and found a way to locate him. Singam invited Yap to dinner and persuaded him to become part of FCC, which Yap lovingly accepted.
Anti-discrimination activism for people living with HIV
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 Studies
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.