On a March morning in 2008, in an apartment in Singapore, Ler Teck Siang drew blood from his left arm and deposited it in a test tube. The slim, bespectacled doctor brought the vial to work with him at a family clinic, where he was serving as a substitute general practitioner.
That evening, the Singaporean doctor’s American partner, Mikhy K. Farrera-Brochez, visited the clinic and asked to undergo a blood test, according to court documents. He was assigned to Ler, who took him into an examination room and labeled the test tube containing his own blood with his partner’s information.
The next day, the test came back negative for HIV, meaning that Farrera-Brochez — 6 feet tall, with dark hair and a closely shaven face — was able to obtain an employment pass, which requires foreigners to prove that they are not carrying the virus that causes AIDS.
But the American knew he was HIV positive, the Singaporean government alleges, and he conspired with his partner to dodge identification on the state’s HIV registry.
Now, he is being accused of a far worse crime, two years after his sham blood test was uncovered in 2017. Singaporean authorities said this week that the 34-year-old, who currently resides in Kentucky, disclosed the personal details of 14,200 HIV-positive residents, including 8,800 foreigners, posting their phone numbers and private addresses on the Web. According to the government, he had gained access to the database — the very file he had once sought to elude — through his 37-year-old partner, who had downloaded the information on a thumb drive when he enjoyed special permissions as the head of the Ministry of Health’s National Public Health Unit from March 2012 to May 2013.
“We are sorry for the anxiety and distress caused by this incident,” the ministry said Monday in a news release.
Behind the security breach, Singapore alleges, lies a conspiracy orchestrated by the two men, whose relationship is under a microscope as the state probes their alleged wrongdoing. Court records viewed by The Washington Post reveal that the initial aim of the couple, far from making life more difficult for HIV-positive people in Singapore, was to make it possible for Farrera-Brochez to live and work in the affluent Southeast Asian city-state, which bars immigrants infected with the virus.
To insulate the American, they constructed an alternate reality involving swapped test tubes and falsified statements and documents that span three continents.
The online disclosures sent shock waves through Singaporean society this week and stirred fear among those living with HIV. Some wondered whether the release of their names and addresses might mean family members or employers would learn of their medical condition.
“It’s already so difficult to live with the virus,” Rayner Kay Jin Tan, an HIV researcher in Singapore, told The Post. “The sense is, ‘How could life be any worse than it already is?’ ”
But Tan said Farrera-Brochez and Ler were victims, too, in the situation. He said they were victims of discriminatory laws that keep gay men in the shadows and stigmatize people with HIV, including by blocking infected immigrants from entry, a restriction eased for short-term visitors in 2015. In 2012, a United Nations report ranked Singapore as among the 12 most active states in introducing new measures criminalizing HIV nondisclosure and transmission.
Anti-LGBT campaigners were already using the breach to argue that gay people should not be put in positions of public trust. The researcher said he worried that the identity of the couple allegedly behind the disclosures would lead people to conflate HIV “with LGBT issues.” Though it is rarely enforced, Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code threatens up to two years in prison for “any male person” who engages in “any act of gross indecency with another male person.”
“The circumstances of the case are in a way brought about by the current laws and the requirements in Singapore,” Tan said, arguing that the stigma surrounding HIV makes the registry a source of fear, causing people to delay testing or treatment because they dread being “found out.” Tan wondered whether there was a way to record infections, which can be controlled using antiretroviral drugs, without collecting the personal details of patients in a centralized database vulnerable to leaks.
Farrera-Brochez and Ler began a relationship in 2007 after meeting online, according to court records. The American moved to Singapore in 2008 and lived with Ler in his apartment. He applied for an employment pass and was granted one, subject to proof that he was not infected with HIV.
According to prosecutors, the two men understood that Farrera-Brochez would be denied the pass if the Ministry of Manpower, the government’s labor agency, knew that he was HIV positive. So Ler suggested submitting his blood and providing the negative test result to the state, prosecutors claim.
In the fall of 2013, the labor agency came to believe that Farrera-Brochez may have falsified his results and ordered him to cancel his work authorization. According to the Straits Times, authorities first grew suspicious in 2012, when Farrera-Brochez reportedly told a health official that his boyfriend had shared screen shots of the registry.
But the American said he was being falsely accused of misrepresenting his medical situation, and told the state that he could supply “proof of being free of HIV,” according to prosecutors. Again Ler drew his own blood, authorities allege, this time on a November morning in 2013. They left their apartment at noon and took a taxi to the Twin City Medical Centre, where Ler had signed up to be a substitute physician. Farrera-Brochez registered as a patient and was seen by Ler, who put gauze on his partner’s arm to make it seem as if blood had been drawn, according to court records.
The blood was passed off as belonging to Farrera-Brochez, and the test came back negative the same day. He retained his employment pass.
The authorities still weren’t convinced. The following month, a police report was filed against the American, accusing him of cheating on the blood test. In an interview with a police investigator in May 2014, he stated that it was his blood.
But the two men were arrested in 2016 on suspicion of falsifying the tests. Prosecutors would later blame the series of false statements made by the pair for delaying the state’s case.
A search of their residence turned up cannabis and ketamine, leading to drug charges that compounded fraud accusations, as well as a set of forged certificates that Farrera-Brochez had used to gain employment as a lecturer in child psychology.
The American had claimed to be a child prodigy, fluent in three languages by the age of 3 and the youngest registered psychologist in the history of the American Psychological Association, according to a story in the Independent published in 2017, when he was sentenced. His mother, he told media in Singapore, was a renowned child psychologist in the U.K. who had inspired his own pursuits. He said he was her “laboratory rat.”
But investigators say a collection of academic degrees, including a PhD from the University of Paris, known as the Sorbonne, had been forged. So had bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University, as well as a teaching certificate from the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board.
Farrera-Brochez was convicted on fraud and drug-related charges in March 2017. At his sentencing, the state argued that the American “knew that foreigners with HIV are not allowed to work in Singapore. His conduct evinces a blatant disregard for the authority of our laws.” Prosecutors argued that his wrongs were committed for “personal advantage. Through the deceit, Mikhy obtained the right to live and work in Singapore.”
Ler is due in court this March on an appeal of his sentence involving what authorities describe as the deceitful blood tests. He now faces new charges under Singapore’s Official Secrets Act for “failing to take reasonable care of protected information" — offenses that prosecutors date to March 2012 and May 2016. He is separately expected to answer drug-related charges on May 29.
Farrera-Brochez, meanwhile, “is currently under Police investigation for various offences, and the authorities are seeking assistance from their foreign counterparts,” according to the health ministry’s news release. In a statement to The Post, the office of the Singapore Attorney-General said the American is being investigated for “offences that he has committed after his deportation from Singapore.”
A message sent to a Facebook page believed to be connected to Farrera-Brochez was not answered, and officials in Clark County, Ky., where he is due to answer a trespassing charge on Feb. 18, said he had yet to enter a plea and that there was no attorney for him on file. An email to the law firm that once represented Ler was not returned. An attorney from the Amarjit Sidhu Law Practice told the Straits Times on Thursday that Ler had discharged him on the first day of his trial last year to represent himself.
After being deported back to the United States last year, Farrera-Brochez — heavier and with stubble on his face — went to Kentucky, where his mother lives, according to arrest records, which places his address in Lexington, Ky.
In December, he banged on his mother’s door in Winchester, Ky. He had done the same three months earlier and was told not to return to the property.
Authorities arrived on the scene and found Farrera-Brochez sitting on the porch of the residence. A police deputy spoke with his mother, who said she didn’t want her son there. He was told to leave and, after refusing, was taken into custody. He is expected to appear in Clark County Circuit Court this month on a charge of third-degree criminal trespassing.
His charge in Clark County pales in comparison to what the Singaporean government accuses him of doing. The health ministry said it first learned that the American was in possession of the confidential information in May 2016, at which point police searched the couple’s apartment, seizing “all relevant material.”
But two years later, and after Farrera-Brochez had been deported, the ministry became aware that he still had part of the records. It filed a police report in May 2018 and notified individuals who appeared to be vulnerable to a possible leak.
The agency learned last week that the data had been published online. The leaked information included names, national identification numbers and test results, as well as contact details, including phone numbers and addresses. A police report was filed the next day, Jan. 23. The day after that, the ministry confirmed that the leaked data matched the registry’s records up to January 2013.
It was unclear which platforms played host to the online leak, and Tan, the HIV researcher, said it was hard to be certain that the information had been scrubbed because it was “outside of a secure system.” Officials were scouring the Web this week for additional disclosures, which were possible, the health agency warned, because the information was still in the hands of the American.
The prospect of further disclosures is frightening, Tan said. But he has also been encouraged by the way the state, medical professionals and members of civil society have reacted.
“I think there’s a sense of helplessness initially, but as we move on, there has been quite a strong community response,” he said.
Lynette Chua, a legal scholar focusing on LGBT rights at the National University of Singapore, said the state has addressed the breach as a privacy and public health problem, rather than targeting the alleged perpetrators for their sexual identity.
The labor department said this week that HIV-positive people were protected by law from wrongful termination, and vowed that it would act to reinstate anyone dismissed because of the breach. Meanwhile, doctors, nurses and social workers, once “quietly supportive” of the population living with HIV, have spoken out more forcefully, Tan said.
Samaritans of Singapore, a crisis and suicide prevention group, posted an AIDS ribbon on Facebook, with the promise, “If you, or anyone you know are affected by the leak, SOS volunteers will be here to lend you our listening ears.” AWARE Singapore, a leading advocacy group, also took to social media to help guide the country’s response.
The group urged the public to empathize with the victims, writing. “Their choice of disclosure has been taken away from them.”
More from Morning Mix: