What’s one thing that annoys Hsien-Hsien Lei ? Being called “such a scientist”.
“Once in a while, I still get comments like that,” says the chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (AmCham), a Chinese-American married to a Singaporean. “Why do we dismiss the scientific point of view? If anything, science is more reflective of the real world than business, because businesses are so laser-focused on driving value.”
Despite her positions of influence in health and industry organisations across Asia and the US, Lei — who has an epidemiology doctorate from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — is coy about calling herself an activist. Instead, she says, she’s an ‘advocate’, championing the importance of science to the business and policy fields.
What does that involve? One recent example: explaining the logic behind Singapore’s tight border policy to AmCham member companies amid the throes of Covid-19. “Businesses were really frustrated because they felt they needed to go out and meet customers. Then there was a period of time where those on work passes couldn’t re-enter the country,” she says.
“I would have to put my public health hat on, and explain that yes, it’s cramping your style, but we cannot have an open border because that brings disease in and leads to cases going up. A lot of people could not connect the two. In their mind, they’re thinking: I’m not sick. I see the case numbers going up, but that has nothing to do with me.”
Science is about being comfortable with risks
These post-pandemic days, Lei’s advocacy work centres around strengthening trust in science experts. She cites vaccine scepticism as an example: “You need to be able to communicate your science to have an impact on policy, on how things work,” she says, “and help people appreciate how important public health is to their everyday life.”
But what is it science offers society that Lei wants to champion? The risk approach, she says. Scientists live with uncertainty “all the time”, and love asking questions: How do we test this? How do we model that?
Businesses seek to reduce risks to the absolute minimum, But science, comfortable with risk, can help society deal with it better. That was clear during Covid, when the public health and business worlds collided hard. Governments worked to engage stakeholders — including business chambers and science groups — in the quest to create balanced policies that protected populations while keeping the economy going.
Politics could be her last big adventure
Beyond greater scientific influence in society, Lei thinks the next frontier is the sharing of massive health datasets between governments.
This was done extensively when the world worked to combat the coronavirus, but can be replicated for other illnesses, like diabetes. The data is already emerging: Singapore, for one, in May announced plans to map the DNA of 100,000 citizens in three years to create one of Asia’s leading reference genome databases, and help the republic find new ways to prevent disease.
“You could be talking about changing the levels of salt intake by a small amount — and that leads to a reduction in risk at the population level,” says Lei. “It’s going to change everything that we do.”
If her eyes sparkle as she speaks, that’s because this resonates with a realisation from her student days: that public health can lead to policy change and population-level impact. In this vein, Lei— who turns 50 this year — keeps a little dream alive that politics could be her last big adventure.
“Part of me wonders if — when I retire, there’s an opportunity for me to run for public office. In Singapore, in the US, we do have many scientists and doctors who are wonderful politicians because they bring that different perspective,” she says. “And who knows, maybe I could be one of them.”