Yong Yung Shin

Brain-Damaged At Birth, Now A Spokesperson For Inclusion

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Singer-songwriter Matthew Quek shares an insider’s perspective on building an inclusive society in his upcoming biopic, Bu Dao Weng.


When he was born, Matthew Quek suffered brain damage due to birth complications which nearly killed his mother.

Throughout his school life, he suffered abuse, discrimination and rejection. He was often labelled stupid, spastic or slow by both teachers and peers alike.

“It was only midway through National Service that the doctors had to, most reluctantly, admit that I had severe learning difficulties. By then, much trauma and damage had transpired,” recalls Quek.

Through a long and winding journey of healing, perseverance and encouragement from loved ones, Quek, 39, is today a history teacher, a vocal specialist as well as an award-winning singer-songwriter​ who once represented Singapore at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Hollywood in 2012.

“I have come to realise that human relationships make all the difference … it was a miracle and by God’s grace that I am where I am now in spite of the terrible odds,” says Quek.

“My parents made it amply clear that as long as I tried my best, stayed true to my conscience, principles and convictions, that that was what really mattered to them,” he added. “This was the pillar and bedrock upon which I based my whole life.”

While there were teachers who told him he was slow and useless, Quek also remembers the few who valued him for his heart and attitude. They didn’t see him as a “results-churning machine” who could never perform as well as his classmates no matter how hard he tried.

Two of his history lecturers inspired him to pursue a career as a history teacher, while his choral and vocal teachers encouraged him to pursue his love for music.

In a world that rewards outward achievement, Quek’s personal struggles embody the message that the true worth of an individual lies not in the accolades and credentials received, but in his heart and moral character.

This is also the theme of a new movie about his life, which will be directed by Kelvin Sng, who directed Singapore’s second highest grossing local movie, Taxi Taxi.

Titled Bu Dao Weng (Chinese for the “roly poly doll” that comes back up when punched) in reference to Quek’s life story of overcoming all odds, the movie will start production in March this year.

Quek’s parents’ faith played a large role in his upbringing. “I believe it was their right understanding of our common faith in God that caused them to adopt such a holistic approach because everyone here faces incredible pressure for their kids to perform well,” says Quek, who was also diagnosed with learning difficulties such as dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

Now, having been an educator for more than 14 years, he observes that this fear of not performing well stems from the belief that “one’s worth is based on what one achieves, not what one is in terms of character and the heart.”

“Of late, there has been greater awareness and sensitivity with regard to those with special learning needs,” notes Quek, “but we have not really reached the stage where we really treat such individuals as equals and fellow moral beings worthy of respect and admiration, especially with respect to the moral effort such people invest in attempting to integrate and contribute as constructive members of the society.”

He adds, “I think we still have a long way to go in terms of really building a climate of genuine empathy—and not sympathy—for individuals with different strengths and dispositions.”

Quek explains that genuine empathy comes from a position of shared respect and equality, not because one feels sorry for others and gives them some “allowance”.

He laments that more often than not, people with learning disabilities have other unique strengths which are not considered “marketable” skills because society values economic growth above all.

An inclusive society cannot become a reality, says Quek, unless the unhealthy fixation with accolades, academic results and attaching one’s value to tangible and purely monetary considerations is thoroughly dealt with. “We have to decide on the values and convictions that will shape our society indelibly,” he states.

To support Matthew Quek in the production of Bu Dao Weng, log on to https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/unbroken-the-bu-dao-weng-short-film-project/x/3915184.

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