Developing Diabetes: Mobilization of Epidemiologic Transition in Singapore's Postcolonial Developmental Imaginary

Mohammad Bin Khidzer, University of California San Diego

This paper examines how ideas relating to population health were mobilized as part of a broader postcolonial developmental agenda in Singapore. I examine scientific literature, global public health reports and press releases relating to a particular population health issue – diabetes - between 1960 to 1990 to understand how the chronic disease was made legible in the local clinical setting and more importantly how it accrued cultural and political meaning in the postcolonial public health narrative. I find that within the scientific and public health discourse in Singapore, the increasing visibility of chronic diseases such as diabetes in the population was explained to be a cost of 'development', underlining the nation's progress since the fraught campaign of independence in 1965. This imbrication of diabetes with developmentalism, a process I term developing diabetes was made possible through the mobilization of Abdel Omran’s 1971 theory of epidemiologic transition, which outlines the linear trajectory from tropical infectious maladies that plague undeveloped nations, to chronic diseases for developed nations. Unmoored from its clinical origins, the association between diabetes and development inadvertently generated an idealized projection of diabetes in public facing discourse. Yet this 'rehabilitation' of diabetes obscured the growing racialization of the disease in the postcolonial scientific literature. The thrifty gene hypothesis and ideas on the suitability of Indian bodies for modern life, both colonial artifacts, were reanimated to explain racial susceptibility to diabetes in the Singapore population, previewing an emergent mode of racial biopolitics that would peak after the 1990s.

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 Presented in Session 42. Political Economy of Knowledge and Education: Political Process and Policy Outcomes (Part 1)