DIYbio in Singapore – preliminary notes

In DIYbio, Food Hacking on February 13, 2011 at 11:44 am

The first DIYbio event in Singapore which was organized in July 2010 also took place in the first and only Hackerspace in Asia. The Singaporean Hackerspace is based in the traditional Malay area of the city, Kampong Glam, which represents well the paradoxes involved in the local movement. Kampong Glam is known for its bohemian and very relaxed atmosphere even if its difficult to find a restaurant serving alcohol beverages because of the strict halal policy. It is however one of the most popular and authentic places with a unique ability to integrate and accommodate the most traditional and the most bohemian cultures. Western tourists, local expats and alcohol loving Singaporeans enjoy the authentic feeling of this place and simply develop a special strategy how to move around by having a dinner in one of the Turkish or Egyptian restaurants outside in the pleasant tropical night while enjoying the drinks later in the air-conditioned Blue Jazz café and club. The club is also used for the monthly Hackerspace events that introduce various interesting local businesses, research and creative projects, so called “blinkBL-NK” nights.

The paradoxes represented by Kampong Glam mixture of religion and hedonism, tradition and innovation, are mirrored well in the local Hackerspace and DIYbio scene. The Singaporean DIYbio that started as a gathering of artists, philosophers and scientists “doing strange things in their bathrooms and kitchens” rather quickly transformed into “Biotech Start-up Nights” in the next three months. While in the original meeting people acquired some knowledge on how to hack rice cookers and create sous-vide cooking devices, how to shoot fly porn with hacked webcams as microscopes and support one local evolutionary biologist in his research, later meetings became networking sessions for the local (missing) biotech startup scene.  Business and culture, government and community projects  in Singapore do not exclude each other but they do not really support each other either. The whole dynamics surrounding the local Hackerspace and DIYbio movement repeats the paradoxes that are so well represented by the Kampong Glam area.

For example, the most serious activity of the Singaporean DIYbio became a rather geeky campaign against the government health program promoting balanced diet but not for reasons which we would expect in such anti-government campaigns which usually protect the rights of the individuals to choose their own diet.  The local Hackerspace responded to the government “command” asking citizens to eat more veggies and grains with even more extreme technocratic and “scientific” advocacy for the so called “paleo diet” based on meat consumption and even molecular gastronomy techniques of “sous-vide cooking”. The main local proponent of the paleo diet and a sous-vide cooking guru, Meng Weng Wong, who is also one of the leading figures of the local Hackerspace, simply started a campaign against the “carbohydrates” conspiracy and other reliques of “agriculture”. He subscribes to the belief in the evolutionary connection between our genes and meat consumption which supposedly developed in the original hunter-gatherer society and which agriculture messed up with grains. For this reason, he is fighting the government camping by organizing large sous-vide meat dinners and parties and using his blog to promote this diet by giving detailed descriptions of his cooking experiments and techniques. The DIYbio in Singapore repeats and mirrors the paradoxes involved in Kampong Glam’s unique bland of traditional and bohemia culture in this unique combination of paleolithic ideology and modern sous-vide technology, of very old food genes and very modern cooking practices, and maybe defines certain Singaporean uniqueness.

The Singaporean DIYbio interest in molecular gastronomy and issues of food and health are also a response to a fashion trend and nutritional discussions which are possible only in a very wealthy society.  The most notable DIYbio initiative in the rest of Asia, especially in Indonesia and in the Philippines, have very different agenda but they also follow closely the EU model. The DIYbio experiments and events in EU are closely connected to the local squat and art centers and to the BioArt projects rather than to the Hackerspace ethos. These global DIYbio networks that are emerging in Asia for this reason offer two,  almost opposing versions of how to involve the public, the citizens in science and technology development. While the US model of Hackerspaces and DIYbio labs is based on the ethos of entrepreneurship and independence from the strong state, which strangely is possible even in the technocratic Singaporean context, the EU model is based on publically funded art projects and the tradition of squat cultures. While in the US model of DIYbio, the citizens are basically shareholders in science and technology projects that have a potential to provide benefits to the early adopters, in the EU model, the citizens are more stakeholders that can have wide range of reasons and interests (often critical) in the biosciences and the biotechnologies. While the Singaporean DIYbio follows the US model in terms of its interests and models of work (Hackerspaces), the rest of Asia is more involved in the critical appropriation of biotech protocols that are closely connected to the strategies typical of the EU art centers and squats.


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