Friday, November 10, 2006

What Ails Biomedical Research in Singapore

I read with interest Dr Lee Wei Ling’s Straits Times comments on “What Ails Biomedical Research in Singapore” while having coffee on a Sunday morning. I was fascinated by her consistent suggestions to research on medical areas such as hepatits B and head injuries which were “relevant to Singaporeans” and where we had a “competitive advantage”. The move to carve a niche in the bio-medical industry was clearly a well-calculated business-positioning and branding project and I was fascinated by her arguments, especially on the pitfalls of chasing the international spotlight, on how best to augment the corporate ethic in this bio-medical project.

To belabour a truism, Singapore is a developed country situated in a region that has been designated by everyone else (i.e. the UN for simplicity) as developing. This makes us visibly different and obvious. Ask any Indonesian businessperson and they’ll tell you that they knew someone who flew into Singapore for surgical procedure. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you the last time they were here for surgery and recommend you the doctor. Foreign patients have been flocking to Singapore in the last 10-15yrs when their numbers encouraged the privatisation of hospitals like Mount Elizabeth. Happily, they liked our services and between 2004 and 2005, there was an increase in 39%. Raffles Medical Group posted an increase of S$11.4 million in profits at the end of 2005, boosted no doubt by foreign patients.

Our geo-political position qualifies us with a strategic leverage on both secondary and tertiary healthcare; the very stuff of specialist consultancy for your liver or vanity, as well as surgical work. (see Indonesian businessman). And our geographical position warrants urgent expertise in pandemic diseases, bacteria and viruses. Though there have been no confirmed reports of human-to-human transfer of the bird flu virus, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia have reported human fatalities. SARS was our case in point. This more than doubles the urgent need for top-notch research in infectious diseases. Add to this the prospect of another natural disaster in the region and the potential for cross-border consequences are naturally there.

It is disheartening to see that at the heart of Dr Lee’s argument, lies a cautious mindset steeped in an untenable conservatism. It was even more surprising to see her use of British medical researcher Simon Schorvon as an example of the dangers of foreign talent coming in with their own sneaky agenda. Simon Schorvon previously held medical appointments in Singapore. During his stint in Singapore, he manipulated patient records in order to conduct unauthorized research and it was said, according to Dr Lee, that he “treated Singaporeans as subjects from a Third World country”. Though his prejudice is sadly misplaced, it is not the issue and most certainly was not responsible for his manipulation and gross medical misconduct. In fact, her example does not suggest a strategic oversight in the poaching of foreign talent, but an administrative one. Simon Schorvon did what he did because he thought and was indeed able to get away with it up to a certain point, and not because he saw Singaporeans as “subjects from a Third World” and thought to himself “why the hell not.” The two are separate; one to do with vision, and the other to do with implementation and regulation. To use Simon Schorvon as reason for casting aspersions on foreign talent would also be, ironically, a foolhardy oversight.

By investing millions of dollars in bio-medical research, one is preparing the foundations for medical discoveries and innovations that will ultimately be “relevant to Singaporeans” and more. Like Dr Lee, the returns are very uncertain but its success will be directly dependant on the mindset of the medical researchers and the creative environment available. Afterall, a gamble for a prominent scholar in the ‘hard sciences’ seems to me a better bet than in political theory. One gets more money and happy people in return.

No comments: