Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life

Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life. Aihwah Ong, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 312 pp.

Aiwah Ong’s Fungible Life replies to a difficult question for social and cultural anthropology: what is an “Asian” form of science? Ong follows the answers given to this question by biologists who work in Singapore at a place called “Biopolis,” a hub for scientific research that presents itself as “the Asian City of Life.” After distinguished works on the transformations of citizenship in southeast Asia, Ong confesses that she is troubled by working with scientists who are so close to her own background and who make bold, culturalist claims, or wo undertake “strategic manipulations of our immeasurable pasts in order to measure a possible unified future” (p. 173).

What, then, makes “the science of Asia” being built in Singapore? It is neither a Chinese race nor a pan-Asian ideology, but a set of innovative connections around biological data, what Ong calls “a genomic origami” (p. 14). Hence the title of the book, borrowed from the founder of Biopolis, Edison Liu, who also headed the Pan-Asian SNP consortium of the Human Genome project. If, as Liu says, “the Biopolis is about making DNA fungible” (p. 14), then DNA information gathered in Singapore becomes, like an asset on the stock market, interchangeable and transferable to produce equitable value. Liu was particularly supportive of a 2009 report on genetic diversity showing that all Asian populations came out of a “single migratory wave” from Africa (p. 157), and Ong comments that his goal was “the formation of a scientific infrastructure that mimics and doubles the ‘Asia’ projected by the genetic mapping” (p. 168).

Ong compares the situation of Singapore to that of Iceland, which has been described by Gissli Palson and Paul Rabinow as an innovative site for genomic research. While in Iceland it was the homogeneity of the population that provided an opportunity to correlate genome findings with long-established genealogies, in Singapore it is the heterogeneity of the population, linked to waves of migration, which becomes an asset. And while Iceland found an innovative form of consent by voting about the genome project in a referendum, Singapore is praised by scientists for its authoritarian regime and cheap labor force that solves, through the transfer of ownership of data and tissues to public institutions, many of the ethical issues raised in Western countries. “Singapore has become a global pied-à-terre for mobile scientists” (p. 117) because it offers good conditions of work for biologists who need a large quantity of information and a long-term commitment from the state.

But there is another reason, beyond the economic infrastructure, for Singapore’s attractiveness to life scientists: its geopolitical situation as a small city-state at the end of the Malay Peninsula. If the founder of the State, Lee Kuan Yew, succeeded in transforming a weak position of “garrison state” for the British colonizers into one of the strongest hubs of the global economy, the Chinese population of contemporary Singapore is still haunted by a “fear of losing out” (or kiasu, in Hokkien dialect) and a sense of vulnerability (p. 33). This feeling was reinforced by the SARS crisis in 2003, when the economy of exchange was threatened by a new epidemic. Because SARS was perceived as a warning for other emerging infectious diseases such as bird flu or dengue, Singapore came to redefine itself as a “biosentinel,” or a “canary in the coalmine” (p. 51), “a strategic gatekeeper of buffer and safe zones in times of global health emergencies.” (p. 193).

Following Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff’s analysis of techniques of preparedness, Ong argues that the unity of the science produced in Singapore comes from its capacity to perceive early warning signals of coming threats and to simulate a potentially catastrophic future through scenario-making exercises and stockpiling information from the past (pp. 158–59). The epistemic virtues that allow scientists to orient themselves in the moral dilemmas raised by stem cell or cancer research are not “dedication to an abstract truth, but being alert to invisible or emerging threats, to be vigilant when attention shifts elsewhere” (p. 122).

Ong also shows that this attentiveness to warning signals shapes the image of the living organism that comes out of biological research. The human cell, just like the Singapore territory, is connected to other cells through a cascade of signals oriented to vectors such as new viruses, trying to regulate the immune response “at different scales from the molecular to the regional and the global” (p. 176). She notes:

The intersection between “multispecies ethnography” and the anthropology of preparedness has opened up a space for anthropologists to be at the forefront of disaster studies. (…) Instead of the epidemiological “hotspot” as a stable object, in practice, researchers, epidemiologists and state authorities approach the zoonotic as a series of zones, thereby folding scales—microbial, animal, human, urban and geographical—of intervention necessitated by the dynamic vectors of deadly diseases through space and time. (p. 176)

Multispecies ethnography is probably the least developed aspect of the book. Showing a diagram of the “Biopolis ecosystem” (p. 19), Ong traces the connections between the scientific research produced in campuses and hospitals in the center and the pharmaceutical companies situated around the airport. But she says less about the animal facility built in the north of the territory adjacent to the border with Malaysia, which is mentioned only through biologists’ jokes that “research will not be disrupted by animal rights activists ‘who care more about animals than people’” (p. 143). A multispecies approach could show how animals are raised in this facility, where they come from, how they relate to the efforts of Asian scientists to “hunt” for new diseases “in the wild,” by contrast with the Western approach of human genomics (pp. 36–37), and what the facility reveals about contrasting ontologies of relations between humans and animals in genomic research.

Ong’s book ends with a remarkable analysis of a private biotech company based in Shenzhen, China. BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute) Genomics was created in 1999 by Henry Yang and Wang Jian, who had been trained in the universities of Copenhagen and Washington. Ong asks how “fungible life” is transformed in mainland China, given its cultural and political constraints. Rather than contrasting China and the West as two systems of regulation of life property and informed consent, she contrasts Shenzhen and Singapore as two biosentinels of future threats. While BGI Genomics restricts its work to the range of biological beings known in mainland China (p. 206), as in classical representations where Asia and the rest of the world turn around the Chinese emperor, it also has its own ideas about wildness. One of the most fascinating projects at BGI related by Ong is the hunt for a gene that would explain the performances of Tibetan people in adapting to climate change.

This book is an essential contribution to a comparative anthropology of biosentinels through a refined and accessible ethnography of two biotech centers in Singapore and Shenzhen, showing how a future is taking shape in which Asia will play a prominent role.