Why Singapore?

"Why Singapore?" I was asked repeatedly when I announced my decision to become the executive director for the Genome Institute of Singapore. For my wife and I, there was no equivocation personally or professionally, but to the rest of the world there was puzzlement and even disbelief. But since I got here in March 2001, my public answer to this question--Why Singapore?--has become a vehicle upon which I can tell my personal story. And it is also a platform from which I can explain my vision for the future of biomedicine and the role that Singapore and Asia can play in the new scientific world order.

My history is both simple and complex. I was born in Hong Kong, and like many during the tumultuous 1950s and 60s, I immigrated to the United States at an early age. I grew up American and went to Stanford University--both as an undergraduate and as a medical student. Medicine was probably preordained because both of my parents and many of my uncles and aunts were medical doctors. I, too, became a physician. I choose to specialize in oncology because it involves a breadth of organ systems and because it possesses both scientific intrigue and emotional intensity; for this is one of the only professions in which one?s presence means so much to patients despite our inability to cure. Disciplines characterized by depth of experience and breadth of subject matter always resonated with me, and because I had to commit to specific training, this fork in the road served as a convenient debarkation point for my personal exploration.

I started my clinical training at Washington University in St. Louis and completed my specialty training at Stanford University and at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). My entry into basic sciences was, like many events in my life, a fluke. I had planned on being a practicing physician, but found that the emerging field of molecular biology was unifying biology and medicine. It was this promise of depth and breadth that drew me to again explore. I put clinical medicine on hold and worked in the research laboratory of Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop at UCSF. This decision was, in retrospect, provident.

It was in Bishop?s lab that I encountered a new intellectual universe that was profoundly enriching and liberating. So, as I was finishing my fellowship training, I took another fork in the road of life and became a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There, I built a translational medicine programme in molecular oncology, with a particular focus on breast cancer. The idea was to use the tools of molecular biology in understanding the genesis and treatment of human cancers. I taught genetics (becoming the chief of medical genetics), biochemistry, medicine, and epidemiology, which again underscores an obvious addiction to experiences that push intellectual depth and breadth.

In 1996, I relinquished an endowed chair of oncology at UNC Chapel Hill to become the scientific director of the Division of Clinical Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) near Washington, D.C. This was the intramural translational arm of the NCI juggernaut--a 1200-person, US$140-million-per-year enterprise. During my tenure at NCI, I redirected my research into expression genomics, an amalgam of cancer cell biology and comprehensive and massively parallel genetic technologies.

It was at NCI that I first saw the potential of big platform bioscience and the remarkable power of bringing basic, genomic, clinical, and population sciences together in a focused attack on human disease. It was also at NCI that I experienced first hand how biomedical research can have an impact on the political and economic well being of a country: I worked with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in using the framework of cancer research as a vehicle to close a political divide. It was then that I also started to work with Singapore.

As it should be clear now, there are emerging themes in my life story. First, life in general is unpredictable, and mine in particular is no exception. Second, conceptual and intellectual integration is fun. A subtext to all this is that enjoying life by doing good things is very rewarding.

This is where the Singapore chapter begins. Asked to be an advisor to the new Singapore Genomics Programme by Philip Yeo and John Wong, I was struck by how far Singapore had developed in the sciences and in the support infrastructure. But more importantly, I noticed something I have never seen before: that Singapore had a plan to integrate biomedical sciences into the fabric of its public policy, economic development, and manpower training. And it also had the will to execute this plan. Singapore had developed a reasonable level of sophistication in public domain biomedical research and in commercial investment. Singapore was also willing to commit the resources and build the infrastructure to achieve a level of industrial development competitive with the likes of Canada, the United States, and Europe.

The invitation for me to become the executive director of the Genome Institute soon followed. As a scientist, I knew that the resources and administrative freedom at the Genome Institute would allow us to conduct big-platform genomic science in a competitive manner. As a science manager, I understood that by leveraging the national aspirations of Singapore we could develop some remarkably novel, comprehensive, and far-reaching scientific programmes. As a policy-thinker in science and government, I was fascinated by the possibility of participating in a process of strategic scientific integration whose only parallel was the Manhattan Project, which brought theoretical nuclear physics to the construction of the atom bomb. This was a process that changed the face of the world?s governments forever. Therefore, the invitation to build a public institute focused on advancing health and directly expanding national prosperity--and one that could be tightly integrated with the fabric of a country?s academia, industry, and government--was too compelling to refuse. So in January of 2001, I announced my plans to move to Singapore and lead the Genome Institute. In March, I officially left my post at NCI.

Why Singapore, I am asked? Why not? Science is global. Its only limitations are resources, infrastructure, and vision--all of which Singapore possesses. So long as we maintain links and heighten our visibility through excellence in research, we will do just fine.

But how can we recruit global talent, which is the key to any country?s success in biomedicine? We do so by prudent workforce management and by advancing an exciting vision. Other concerns are actually straightforward. The universal language in biology is English, and the scientific principles and deductive experimental processes are identical regardless of location and subdiscipline. Singapore, in fact, is unique in all of Asia for its potential in supporting the transplantation of global talent. It is the only Asian country that uses English as a first language and where the lifestyle and operating systems are compatible with practices in highly developed countries. In biology, these are some of the major factors in attracting domain talents and their families. In fact, since March 2001, we have recruited 76 individuals from Singapore, Asia, North America, and Europe. We are planning to reach 250 more in the next 2 years.

Will we succeed? We will if we adhere to specific principles:

1. Integration and flexibility: Smaller units can out-compete larger groups if they are flexible and work in a coordinated manner. Being sufficiently agile to attack experiments of opportunity is but one advantage of being small and compact.

2. Globalization: We will participate in global projects, study questions of global importance, and recruit from a global talent pool. By understanding where the field is globally, Singapore can develop strategies that either leverage on existing work, or that will leap-frog current programs because Singapore does not have historical burdens in law or infrastructure pertinent to genetics.

3. Commitment: Development in the life sciences is long and arduous. The winners are inevitably those who have sustained efforts and long-term strategic thinking.

4. Focus: The Genome Institute cannot be all things to all people. So our focus will be to study the genome through the transcripts in biological systems, to understand the genetic architecture of Pan-Asian populations, and finally to focus on the intersect between genomics and human medicine. Our focus on biology and medicine will cover: pharmacology/pharmacogenomics; stem cell biology; cell biology of cancer; the immune system; and metabolism, comparative genomics, gene regulation, and liver biology.

Why should Singapore invest in biomedicine? Policy planners have always understood that the profit margins in biomedicine are significant, but an added attraction is that the enabling knowledge-based infrastructures for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, unlike electronic chip manufacturing and even some logistics, cannot be easily transplanted in its totality to a cheaper offshore location. As a result, interest in the life science cluster is intense in most industrialized and newly industrialized nations. There are major efforts by the governments of England, Ireland, Germany, Canada, Korea, Japan, and China in pursuing biomedicine as a point of industrial development. The life sciences are no longer just sexy, but are becoming a staple in a nation?s economic well-being. For many keen observers of biomedicine, the question is not whether Singapore should invest in the life sciences, but whether Singapore can afford not to invest, given the intense developmental plans by its regional competitors. Since the key to a vibrant biomedical industry is an equally vibrant public domain research community, the importance of institutes like the Genome Institute of Singapore is high.

Why Asia? The last answer to this question is based on our understanding of history and what has been happening in the last 2 decades. For the first time in about 250 years, Asia is relatively free of colonialism, feudalism, genocide, and famine. There has been unprecedented growth and a rise in the standard of living. This next century will be one of Asian prosperity and influence, and if I can help this happen peacefully through biomedicine, then I will have achieved an important personal goal. Why Singapore? The answer is simple. If little Singapore can succeed, then there is hope for the rest of the world.

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