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.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

On Haze, Al Gore, and Green Cars

I have been highly irritable for the past month, as the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) crept towards the unhealthy zone. “Runny nose, eye irritation, sore throat, dry cough…”, my doctor read out. And delivering the final blow, “stay indoors!”, he bellowed.

Woe, adieu to my usual outdoor activities, with all credit to the haze.

There’s indeed some truth in the so oft-heard dictum that we only treasure something when it’s gone. One can’t help but agree to the suggestion that Singaporeans have taken the clean and green environment here for granted.

It is during this time each year that we are reminded of the need to do the environmentally-friendly right stuff.

So when former US Vice President Al Gore’s award-winning documentary premiered in Singapore, I thought it was so fitting and timely to catch “An Inconvenient Truth”. Not that I was convinced by the documentary’s anti-Bush bashing (subtle or otherwise), but the ‘go green’ messages resonated well, especially as the haze reminded how the quality of my life is dependent on Mother Nature.

I read that Singapore’s level of particulate mater less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) has exceeded standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The message is clear: what you can’t see doesn’t mean that it’s not there! Apparently, high levels of PM2.5 pose health risks as the particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory system. And all this is not due to the forest fires in Indonesia alone.

Instead, diesel vehicles here reportedly contribute half of the PM2.5 in the air.

Hence, the initiatives by the Singapore Government to have more ‘green’ cars are laudable. Diesel vehicles with 70% less PM2.5 are now readily available in the market. Car makers are also promoting more ‘hybrid’ cars. More people are encouraged to car pool or take public transport. And the Transport Minister, Raymond Lim recently came out to say that “my other car is a bus”.

To quote Tabitha Wang, “I’d assumed that breathing clean air was my right but I was wrong; it was a privilege”. Well, the sunshine seems to be back, let’s keep it that way…