A Visit to Ladang Getah Collective
3 March 2022 by Zoelle Egner in Health
Once you’ve passed through the arch, you know you’ve left Kuala Lumpur. Petaling Jaya, its overgrown suburb-cum-sister-city, sprawls before you, its domes and high rises forming a sloppy silhouette against the cloudy sky.
Ladang Getah Collective isn’t easy to find: Its entrance is in an unobtrusive alley in a quiet part of the city. To get there, you have to pass some of the most well-known clinics for aesthetic surgery. With their glass facades and international accreditations, they represent the finest that Malaysia’s booming medical tourism industry has to offer.
Ladang Getah is something else altogether.
Ladang Getah means “Rubber Plantation” in Malay — a throwback to the colonial origins of the city. It’s the only traditional reference in the place besides the tea: When you arrive in the makeshift waiting area, someone appears almost instantly to offer you a warm cup of teh tarik, a blend of condensed milk and black tea that is Malaysia’s national drink.
“The name is a bit of a joke,” says Ismail, a technician and member of the collective who doubles as my greeter. “Because of course the type of work we do here — well, it’s not like the clinics around the corner. We’re not pumping peoples’ faces full of fillers. Though they send us plenty of customers, quietly.” In fact, Ismail won’t call what happens here medical procedures. “There are laws, you understand. This isn’t the Wild West.”
Ladang Getah is what Ismail and others refer to as a “biohacking spa” — the result of the growing biohacker movement in Southeast Asia and a regional legacy of body modification dating back for generations. Where other biohacking groups in Singapore and the Philippines have focused primarily on DIY agricultural interventions and so-called “biopiracy,” here in Petaling Jaya the emphasis is, officially, strictly aesthetic.
The official menu of procedures available ranges from the whimsical “Jellyfish Treatment,” which uses a genetic intervention to introduce bioluminescent patterns on skin, to a range of “subdermal implants” ranging from fingertip magnets and RFID tags for interacting with your smart home to retro bagel-shaped saline injections and color-changing horns.
Yet when we head back to the lab, where collective members continue to experiment with new biohacking techniques, hints of broader ambitions appear. There’s a bank of 3D printers in the corner busily extruding organic matter. When I inquire, Ismail launches into a long explanation of biological matrices and culturing specialized tissues — that is, printing organs.
“We’re just starting to see tools available on the market that make growing new organs from patient cell cultures cheaper and more accessible for the middle-class consumer,” says Dr. Analise Roederer, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam whose work focuses on regenerative medicine and genetic therapies. “Much of the progress we’ve made in that area has benefited from the open-source work being done in DIYBio spaces. That said, there is still a difference between the work done by licensed medical facilities and what you can achieve at home. I wouldn’t try to grow yourself a kidney any time soon — or buy one from your local hackerspace, for that matter.”
There’s also the question of the law. Since 2005, when the Malaysian Ministry of Health first began promoting the country as a destination for medical tourism, strict new regulations have been introduced aimed at raising medical facilities to international standards. “We’re proud to provide world-class, affordable medical services to patients from around the world,” said a Ministry spokesperson via email. “There is no tolerance for unauthorized medical testing or experimental procedures not approved by the Ministry of Health within Malaysia.”
While a decade-old program to support the homegrown tech scene around Kuala Lumpur protects development efforts by registered biotechnology and medical device startups, there are still significant testing requirements for any organization performing procedures requiring anesthesia, whether general or topical.
The same goes for medical implants that require a power source. The majority of contemporary “electroceuticals” rely on wireless charging or the body’s natural electrical charge, but these technologies are expensive and not easy to manufacture outside of research institutions and medical conglomerates. As a result, many hobbyists turn to batteries.
Ismail shows me a range of prototype implants of this type, with theoretical uses ranging from monitoring and adjusting endocrine levels to intramuscular stimulation meant to speed recovery after sport-related injuries. “These are still being developed, of course,” he says when I ask how they plan to handle the potential risks associated with introducing a battery, however small, into the body. “We have no immediate plans to start testing or selling them.”
There is one thing I can try today. We walk over to a large refrigerator filled with bottles of murky liquid, each labeled neatly in both English and Malay. “Stool samples. We identify microbial imbalances in the digestive tract and provide you with a custom probiotic intervention.”
When I ask whether any patients have requested these new devices or treatments, he demures. “Oh, we don’t have patients here. Just guests. But we value guest privacy most highly.” And it’s true: In my entire time at Ladang Getah Collective, I don’t see a single other guest. But based on the reviews online, this isn’t for lack of traffic. It’s simply the way things are done here.
Ismail is disappointed when ultimately I do not partake in any of the Collective’s offerings. “But you must come back,” he says. “To make your body in your own image. The possibilities — you cannot imagine.”
Sirens contributing writer Zoelle Egner is the co-creator of the national reading series The Lit Slam and the author of a graphic novel, Troll. A memoir about her years in enterprise software, Speaking in GIF, is forthcoming in early 2023. Follow her on Twitter @zoelle.