Aihwa Ong

 

On her book Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life

Cover Interview of January 18, 2017

In a nutshell

Fungible Life looks at the entanglement of the life sciences, capitalism, politics, and ethics from the perspective of Biopolis, a new biomedical hub in Singapore.

The book asks: What would an Asian style of scientific entrepreneurialism look like? How is it related to and yet different from an American approach? What are the economic, social, political and ethical implications of genomic science expertise emerging in Asia?

Briefly, one can look at two aspects of the Singapore initiative. The external view is that Biopolis provides scientific access to “Asian” bodies, DNA, and diseases. A global city-state that upholds international “best practices” in education, research and business, Singapore is an ideal place to customize medicine for the burgeoning Asian drug markets. From the internal view, the post SARS initiative is, in a world dominated by big pharma, to orient genomic science toward the needs and interests of peoples in Asia.

How do scientists integrate particularities of human and non-human life forms in the Asian tropics into their experiments? In a field mainly focused on “Caucasian” bodies, researchers at Biopolis complete by mining genetic variations in “Asian” bodies. In multiracial Singapore, researchers quickly applied the ethnic heuristic (approved by NIH) to track health differences among Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations. By thus correlating data points on ethnic, genetic, and disease risks, scientists at Biopolis produced a code of Asian post-genomics that can be applicable to majority populations in the region.

Life is thus rendered fungible, I argue, because the alignment of ethnicity, mutation, and disease makes these elements interchangeable values across different regimes. By holding the genomic database to the continent, this tiny island draws drug companies eager to test novel drugs. At the same time, the science generates biopolitical value in that it advances the modern governance of the biological well-being of citizens. Furthermore, Asia-oriented biomedicine engenders an affective form of self-knowledge that enhances the social value of peoples in an emerging region. Making life fungible also makes it flourish.

But like all experiments, this biomedical enterprise operates in dynamic global context. Scientists grapple with different kinds of contingencies emerging from the lab, the state, the market and the unknowable future. Part I examines how scientists track prevalent health risks, map serious diseases, and create biomarkers as a foundation for an Asian-oriented genomics. Part II considers uncertainties that cannot be easily calculated. Researchers at their bench and computers also worry about the precarious funding, the place of virtue in their work, the value of their innovations and the promise of Biopolis. Part III identifies the ‘known unknowns’ that scientists can only partially prepare for, from emerging epidemics to the tsunami of aging populations and the effects of climate change. A glance at BGI Genomics in China shows a different configuration of genomic science in Asia.