Meet Prof. George Bishop

By Elizabeth Shana Kamaldin and Choo Ruizhi
(Interview conducted on March, 2014)
Prof Bishop
Tell someone on the street that he just had a close encounter with a person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and he’ll most likely be scared out of his wits. Indeed, despite scientific evidence claiming otherwise, many still hold illogical misconceptions of the disease and would like to stay as far away from it as they can. Subsequently, it comes as little surprise that PLWHA have been subject to stigmatisation and discrimination of all sorts, from having their houses burned to themselves being stoned. In such an environment, Professor George Bishop particularly stands out as someone bold enough to take on the challenge of fighting against AIDS – an endeavor he has undertaken for over two decades.

Birthed from an interest in looking at how lay people understand physical illness, Dr. Bishop had found AIDS particularly interesting not only because there were a lot of myths at the time about the disease, but also “because that’s where the need is”. For instance, Dr. Bishop shared with The Cinnamon Roll a story about how an HIV-positive person had once gone swimming in a community pool, which resulted in the pool being drained and others refusing to use it after that. Indeed, it was people’s “irrational behaviour” that drew his interest in the disease. As his research uncovered, people were reading their knowledge of other kinds of viruses – such as colds, flu, and chicken pox – into AIDS, despite knowing that unlike these common viruses, it was not spread through droplets in the air.

Dr. Bishop didn’t just stop there, however, but soon became involved in advocacy work. He had gotten involved with Action for AIDS (AfA) – a voluntary community-based organisation – since 1996, and had even volunteered at the AfA Anonymous Testing Site in Singapore. While many associated with HIV/AIDS claimed to have faced instances of discrimination themselves, Dr. Bishop seems to be lucky in that area. The only instance he described having faced some form of discrimination was when taking a taxi to the Communicable Diseases Center (CDC), when the cabbie dropped him off about 100m from the entrance because he did not want to be anywhere near the place. Yet, Dr. Bishop was quick to add that in another situation where he took a cab to the Anonymous Testing Site, he had gotten into a conversation about HIV with the driver, who agreed with him on the unfair discrimination regarding the area and HIV in general.

"Riding for Life": A long distance cycling fundraiser for AfA
Dr. Bishop taking part in “Riding for Life” – A long distance cycling fundraiser for AfA

Dr. Bishop even teaches a module exploring AIDS from a multifaceted perspective: USE2307 From Microbes to Nations: The Case of HIV/AIDS. This module is constructed with the dual motives of fulfilling a “socially desirable end in terms of teaching people … about HIV”, and “providing a very interesting case study for looking at the way you can understand a phenomenon by looking at it from different perspectives.” Doubtless, students will be able to “take away a kind of broader sense of compassion in many respects,” in a kind of humanitarian dimension.

Having stayed at NUS for over two decades (he first arrived here in 1991 on a one-year visiting appointment), Dr. Bishop has not only taught numerous classes, but also saw how Singapore grew to become a uniquely fascinating place where he found some answers to certain research questions. Dr. Bishop recounts how “I became interested in how lay people understood physical illness, and Singapore was a particularly interesting case study because of how Western and traditional forms of medicine are syncretised”. In a manner so characteristic of life’s serendipities, Dr. Bishop explains his decision to stay on after his year-long appointment simply as how “one thing led to another…and I have settled down well here”.

Twenty years here has privileged him to watch how NUS as a university has evolved and expanded, noting how total student enrolment today is more than double that of when he first arrived in Singapore. As the former head of the Psychology Department at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), he speaks with pride at having witnessed how the department has blossomed, from its beginnings as a minor unit paired with Social Work, to one which today stands by itself as a full-fledged department unto itself in FASS, with a staff size of around 40.

Looking back, Dr. Bishop tells the Cinnamon Roll that he “probably would have laughed” if someone would have told him 30 years ago that he would end up as a professor teaching at NUS. He tells us how he had once aspired to be a concert pianist – “I actually studied music up to my third year in university, and did piano performances through my junior year”. When asked why he did not pursue this music in more depth, Dr. Bishop chuckles “I was already doing a double major in psychology and mathematics, and I just thought three majors would have been a bit too much”. Nonetheless, Dr. Bishop still enjoys playing on the piano today – just not in a professional capacity – “it is a very tough profession to be in”, he shares.

Asked about the future of HIV/AIDS in Singapore, Dr. Bishop believes much more needs to be done to change prevalent (and harmful) attitudes towards the disease, which are currently exacerbated by how the local law is heavily punitive of persons suffering from HIV/AIDS. Attitudes need to change, he asserts, before the HIV/AIDS situation and those living with the disease can have any hope of improving their lives.

A passionate and curious teacher, Dr. Bishop has given decades of his life to raising awareness for a highly stigmatised disease in societies where prejudice and ignorance have marginalised victims. In an academic environment often too lost in achievement and accomplishment; in a technological age too reliant on cure-alls and silver bullets, Dr. Bishop’s example is reminiscent of what the great statesman Nelson Mandela once said: that “education is the most powerful weapon with which we can change the world”.

Prof Bishop receiving  the Outstanding Contribution to Psychology in Singapore Award from Singapore Psychological Society President COL Bernard Lim. Photo courtesy of
Dr. Bishop receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Psychology in Singapore Award from Singapore Psychological Society President COL Bernard Lim. Photo courtesy of

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