Mikhy Farrera-Brochez wants you to know that he’s had a rough couple of months. He’s struggled with joblessness and homelessness. He’s facing charges of trespassing on his mother’s property in Winchester, Kentucky, near Lexington.
And then there’s the fact that, half a planet away, the 34-year-old American is at the center of an international investigation into the leak of the personal data of thousands of HIV-positive people in Singapore.
Farrera-Brochez's story of how he got here is convoluted and nearly impossible to verify in full, particularly since the details often shift in the retelling. But this much is clear: He claims to have the names, phone numbers, and addresses of 14,200 people listed on a registry that Singapore uses to track people living with HIV. If the registry’s contents were to become publicly available, those individuals could lose their jobs, their insurance, and their friends and family.
In interviews with VICE News, Farrera-Brochez insisted that he shared the registry — which he said he’s possessed for more than six years — with Singaporean and U.S. government officials, as well as with the press, because he wanted to prove that the sensitive, potentially stigmatizing information it contains had already been exposed. He wants to prove that the Singaporean government has tried to cover up the leak of the registry.
“How can I leak something that was already leaked?” he asked.
“The HIV registry is wrong, and I stood up to them.”
Farrera-Brochez also doesn’t believe Singapore should have been registering HIV-positive people at all. “The HIV registry is wrong, and I stood up to them,” he said.
Farrera-Brochez spent much of the last decade living in Singapore with his partner, a bespectacled Singaporean doctor named Ler Teck Siang, whom Farrera-Brochez met in 2007. The relationship between the two men was tumultuous, but they were often happy together. They did try to keep their relationship quiet: In Singapore, sexual intimacy between men is punishable by up to two years in prison, though the law is seldom enforced.
Then, in 2016, Singaporean authorities raided the men's apartments and seized their computers and hard drives. Police arrested Farrera-Brochez, who is HIV-positive, and charged him with faking government-mandated blood tests to keep his name off the nation’s HIV registry. He faced spending years in prison.
Mikhy Farrera-Brochez (left) with Ler Teck Siang (Photo: Mikhy Farrera-Brochez)
Had his name been on that list, Farrera-Brochez would not have been allowed to work or live in Singapore with Ler. Until April 2016, HIV-positive foreigners were banned from entering the country altogether.
Farrera-Brochez was convicted and imprisoned for more than two years before being deported. He flew home to the United States last year.
On January 28, while Farrera-Brochez was in Kentucky, all hell broke loose: Singapore’s Ministry of Health accused him of leaking the same registry he’d allegedly spent years trying to escape. The leak included information belonging to 5,400 Singaporeans diagnosed with HIV before January 2013 and 8,800 foreigners diagnosed before December 2011, according to the ministry.
The accusation triggered a nationwide panic and scores of frenzied headlines. The stigma around HIV/AIDS remains strong in Singapore: In a 2007 national survey of more than 1,700 people in Singapore, just over half said that they would care for a close relative who’d become ill from HIV/AIDS. But only about 22 percent said they would share a meal with someone who has HIV.
Rayner Kay Jin Tan, a Singapore-based researcher who studies HIV, called the leak — and the story behind it — “a really, really big shock.”
“Knowing how fearful people are of having their HIV status disclosed, I was feeling the despair.”
“Knowing how fearful people are of having their HIV status disclosed, I was feeling the despair,” Tan said of the days following the Ministry of Health’s announcement. “And as the days went by, I kind of felt a little bit helpless, as someone who is quite acutely aware of how scary it might be for someone living with HIV.”
Farrera-Brochez remains under investigation by police, the Ministry of Health wrote in a release, adding that “the authorities are seeking assistance from their foreign counterparts.”
The leak heard 'round the world
According to Singapore’s Ministry of Health, Ler could access the HIV registry thanks to his former job as head of the agency’s National Public Health Unit, and is believed to have taken the registry home on a thumb drive. The ministry says it first became aware that Farrera-Brochez had info that seemed to be taken from the registry in 2016, right before he was charged. But the government concealed the breach from the public until last month.
That’s when Farrera-Brochez emailed Google Drive links for what he said was the registry to the main email address associated with the Singaporean Supreme Court, according to emails reviewed by VICE News. Several members of the Singaporean government, the Singaporean attorney general’s office, an official with the U.S. State Department, and a senior editor at CNN’s Hong Kong bureau were also copied on that email.
Farrera-Brochez also offered multiple times to show VICE News the registry. VICE News did not view it as it contains private medical information.
Months earlier, in September 2018, Farrera-Brochez separately sent an email containing a similar link to the editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, an English-language Singaporean newspaper that boasts more than one million readers.
Emailing the HIV registry to the press is not the same as publicly leaking it, Farrera-Brochez contends. He wasn’t worried that reporters would publish the information because, he said, “I had faith that they were going to do the right thing.”
“Giving that to the press, I was hoping that somebody would get a look at what has been going on in Singapore and how they are using that registry to track individuals with HIV and men who have sex with men,” he went on. “There’s no need to have that registry.”
Farrera-Brochez sees himself as a whistleblower, and says the Singapore government framed him to keep him quiet and the original breach of the registry buried. “This corrupt government biased this court and falsely accused us of cheating on an HIV test to cover up the fact they have your confidential medical info without encryption, without password protection, which caused it to be leaked,” he told VICE News.
In short, Farrera-Brochez wants Singaporean authorities to listen to him. And the HIV registry might be the only leverage he’s got.
There’s nothing to stop him from leaking it again. Shortly after VICE News first reached out to him, Farrera-Brochez texted a reporter, “Will it hurt your story if I make some of the data public?”
Faking a blood test
Ler and Farrera-Brochez first sought to live together in Singapore in 2008. While Farrera-Brochez says that he was not HIV-positive at that time, Singaporean prosecutors allege otherwise — and claim Ler and Farrera-Brochez tried to get around Singaporean laws that discriminate against foreign workers with HIV.
According to the Singaporean government’s version of events, as described in court and police records, Farrera-Brochez used a fake Bahamian passport, bearing the name “Malatesta da Farrera-Brochez,” to obtain an HIV test in Singapore in March 2008. The test came back positive on March 11.
Mikhy Farrera-Brochez (L) and Ler Teck Siang (R) (Photo: Mikhy Farrera-Brochez)
So, on the morning of March 13, Farrera-Brochez and Ler got to work in Ler’s apartment. Ler drew a test tube of blood from his left arm, and took the blood to the clinic where he worked, court documents allege. When Farrera-Brochez showed up for a blood test later that day, Ler served as his doctor. And instead of submitting a sample of Farrera-Brochez’s blood, Ler handed in his own, HIV-negative blood under his partner’s name.
It worked. The test was negative, and Farrera-Brochez was allowed to work in Singapore.
Four years later, in 2012, something bizarre happened: Farrera-Brochez complained to the government that Ler divulged Farrera-Brochez’s HIV status to a third person — even though the American said that he was HIV-negative at that time. A Ministry of Health official confronted Ler and asked him if he’d ever taken screenshots of the registry. Ler did not admit to sharing the registry, but he did say he'd told somebody else about Farrera-Brochez’s status, according to court documents.
That complaint triggered an investigation, but Farrera-Brochez refused to cooperate, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Singapore’s Parliament on Tuesday. “At one point, he even informed MOH [Ministry of Health] officers that he was leaving Singapore and did not want to continue with the investigation into his allegation,” Gan told ministers, according to the Straits Times. The investigation stalled out, and the Ministry of Health insists it had no idea that Farrera-Brochez had the registry.
By late 2013, though, the Singaporean government suspected that Farrera-Brochez had faked his 2008 blood test, per court documents. When Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower told Farrera-Brochez that the agency planned to cancel his work permit, he promised to provide “proof of being free of HIV.”
So, according to court records, Farrera-Brochez and Ler repeated the ruse, once again giving the Ministry of Health a sample of Ler’s blood instead of Farrera-Brochez’s. When that sample also tested negative, Farrera-Brochez was able to stay in Singapore, though the police continued to investigate the couple.
In 2014, Farrera-Brochez and Ler got married in the United States. They then returned to Singapore.
In April 2016, police arrested Farrera-Brochez for refusing to obey the government’s order that he take a new blood test, Gan said. After the arrest, Farrera-Brochez handed police the names and information of 75 people listed on the HIV registry. At that point, the Ministry of Health suspected the American had not only faked his blood tests, but had also taken Singapore’s HIV registry, according to Gan.
The Ministry of Health soon filed a police report against Farrera-Brochez, and investigators searched the couple’s homes. They seized every trace of the registry they could find, including a PDF file containing 46 more records from the HIV registry, which Farrera-Brochez had emailed to his mother, Gan said. Police then brought a litany of charges against Farrera-Brochez and Ler over the purportedly falsified blood tests.
Police also charged Farrera-Brochez with possession of cannabis, ketamine, and drug paraphernalia; consumption of amphetamine; and possession of forged academic records from schools including Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Prosecutors claimed he used the records to apply for jobs. (Farrera-Brochez also told VICE News he went to Vanderbilt. A Vanderbilt official said the school had no record of a Mikhy Farrera-Brochez or Mikhy Brock, a name he sometimes uses.)
“If we were a heterosexual couple, then we would not have to do what we did”
Farrera-Brochez pleaded guilty to two drug possession charges — though he said he was only holding the drugs for a friend — as well as two charges of submitting falsified blood tests, one charge of lying to a police officer, and one charge of using a forged academic certificate.
“If we were a heterosexual couple, then we would not have to do what we did. The discriminating and bigoted law in place left us no alternative,” Farrera-Brochez wrote in a police statement. “I love my spouse. He is all I have. He was there for me during a very difficult time. I’m sorry for what we did. I wish there had been another option for us.”
Ler echoed his husband in one of his own statements to police. He told them that, while he “was regretful of the deception, at that point in time, I could really see no other way for the two of us to remain together had I not done what I did.”
Both Farrera-Brochez and Ler were convicted, and the Ministry of Health decided to keep the breach secret, for years — even from the people whose information was exposed.
“These were not straightforward decisions. On the one hand, there's the need to be transparent. On the other hand, we need to consider the impact of the announcement on the affected persons with HIV,” Gan told Parliament. “A person's HIV status is a deeply emotional and personal matter. Some patients may experience high anxiety and distress from disclosure or announcement. Some will feel compelled to reveal their HIV status to family or friends, relationships can be disrupted, lives can be changed.”
While Farrera-Brochez was sentenced to 28 months’ imprisonment, Ler appealed and claimed that he’d made some of his police statements under duress. He’s still awaiting a hearing on his appeal.
In April 2018, after serving his time, Farrera-Brochez was deported.
Taking the HIV registry public
Today, back in the United States, Farrera-Brochez is consumed with clearing his name. He disputes much of the Singaporean government’s version of events. “They’ve only delayed me and strengthened my resolve to get the full story public,” Farrera-Brochez wrote in a text to VICE News.
Farrera-Brochez says he was forced to plead guilty after being held for four days without food, water, or medication. (The Singapore Police Force did not respond to a VICE News request for comment about this allegation.) He only wrote that police statement, he said, because he was told that if he acted remorseful, he’d get a lighter sentence.
Farrera-Brochez told VICE News that he had tested negative for HIV in 2008 and again in 2013, and that he only contracted the virus after he was beaten and sexually assaulted in Singaporean prison. Ler did serve as his doctor for the second blood test, he said, but that’s only because he’d already taken several blood tests and didn’t want to pay the fees for another.
Farrera-Brochez first obtained the HIV registry, he said, after recovering two laptops that had been stolen out of his apartment by somebody who Farrera-Brochez believed was having an affair with Ler. Having noticed that some of his files were missing, Farrera-Brochez uploaded a program from the internet to recover them. That’s when the registry popped up, Farrera-Brochez said.
“It wasn’t just the registry; it was a lot more files,” Farrera-Brochez said, before ticking off the other records he said he found, like lists of people who’d contracted dengue and people who’d contracted swine flu. He recalled thinking, “What the fuck is this?”
“I spent probably about two weeks going over all of this stuff,” he said. “I was shocked when I got to the HIV registry, at how common infections are among young people.”
Farrera-Brochez has changed his story about when, exactly, this alleged break-in happened. In interviews with VICE News, Farrera-Brochez said that it took place in 2011; in a 2016 police statement he sent to VICE News, he claimed it was in 2012.
Ler led the Ministry of Health’s National Public Health Unit from March 2012 to May 2013.
Regardless of whether the laptops were stolen before Ler started working at the unit, or during, Farrera-Brochez believes that the person who stole his laptop, not Ler, somehow also stole the registry. “I don’t think that he did this,” Farrera-Brochez said of Ler. He added, “My husband isn’t someone who would take a bribe or do something to hurt another person. He tries to help people.”
VICE News attempted to contact Ler through an intermediary, but he has not responded. A U.S. State Department official told VICE News that the agency had no comment on Farrera-Brochez’s claims due to privacy considerations.
The person whom Farrera-Brochez accused of breaking into his apartment and stealing the registry denied all wrongdoing in an interview with VICE News. He said that Farrera-Brochez had complained about him to Singaporean police in 2016, and that he had been investigated and cleared. (The police also did not respond to a VICE News request for comment on this claim.)
The person — who VICE News is not naming because the claims are not corroborated — said he’d never had an affair with Ler and never broke into Farrera-Brochez’s apartment. He also said he only learned about the HIV registry breach after reading about it in the news.
Farrera-Brochez said that he told Ministry of Health officials on multiple occasions that the registry had been compromised, but they didn’t act. When asked about the 2012 complaint he’d made about Ler, for purportedly revealing his HIV status, Farrera-Brochez said he wasn’t referring to his own status but rather calling attention to the breach of the registry writ large.
On January 22, 2019, when Farrera-Brochez sent the email with the link to the HIV registry to the Singaporean Supreme Court, he once again said that he and Ler had been imprisoned on false charges because he had come forward about the registry. He also demanded court transcripts and that the Supreme Court “rectify this horrible miscarriage of justice which has embarrassed Singapore and its courts.”
Farrera-Brochez is due in court in a week, to face the trespassing charges in Kentucky, which stem from a dispute with his mother, with whom he’s not close. For now, he told VICE News, he’s living out his car and running around Washington, D.C., trying to meet with U.S. government officials.
He hasn’t heard anything about the possibility of extradition, he said.
Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, told VICE News in an email, “As a matter of policy, the Justice Department does not publicly comment on correspondence with foreign governments on mutual legal assistance and extradition matters, including the very existence of such requests.”
“These laws don't make sense”
The Ministry of Health first revealed that the registry had been disclosed online just six days after Farrera-Brochez emailed the Singaporean Supreme Court. “It was always recognized that there was a risk that Brochez could have hidden away some more information,” Gan told Parliament on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, as recent events showed, Brochez did manage to retain at least some data which he has recently been disclosed, and we cannot rule out the possibility that he has more."
The ministry said it had realized as early as May 2018 that Farrera-Brochez still had some of the registry records, and contacted the people involved. It had also updated its security protocols in recent years: Only authorized machines can now process sensitive info on the registry, and it can only be downloaded and decrypted with the approval of two people.
When VICE News sent the Ministry of Health a detailed list of questions about the breach and Farrera-Brochez’s allegations, including about the security surrounding the registry, the agency referred reporters to its January 28 press release. The agency did not respond to follow-up emails.
Still, the country’s reaction to the scandal has left Tan, the local HIV researcher, somewhat hopeful. He’s watched as public officials, healthcare workers, and community groups have stepped up to help people whose information has been leaked, and who are afraid they’ll be shunned by their employers and loved ones.
An association of insurance companies has pledged to avoid using any confidential data from the HIV registry. AWARE Singapore, an advocacy group that fights for gender equality, posted a plea to Facebook that asked people to “empathize with the victims.” Tan himself has written an op-ed that debunks myths around HIV/AIDS and makes it clear that the virus is no longer a death sentence.
“These reflect the views of civil society in a way that the government can actually see that, ‘OK, given the evidence, given how civil society is reacting to this whole issue, maybe it’s time for some changes in the law’” around the registry, Tan said.
“Especially in the context of work and employment, these laws don’t make sense anymore.”
Cover: Mikhy Farrera-Brochez (L) poses with husband Ler Teck Siang (R) in Singapore. (Photo: Facebook/Mikhy Farrera-Brochez)