SINGAPORE: “My parents are suffering.”
“I love them so much.”
“They’ve lost so much because of me.”
He takes some time to put these sentences together, repeating words and slurring slightly as he habitually pushes his glasses up his nose. The spectacles don’t sit well with his sunken left temple and the palm-sized, surgically-inserted titanium plate holding it up.
On the same side, his limited field of vision causes his burly frame to teeter left sporadically as he ambles along the Pandan River towards home in Jurong East. He quickens his pace as storm clouds gather overhead. “It’s going to rain.”
Twelve years ago, a few hundred metres away, it was pouring when Lee Wei Kong, Anglo-Chinese Junior College rugby captain, sprinted through a pedestrian crossing to catch the bus - and was bulldozed by an oncoming taxi.
His severe, traumatic head and spinal injuries needed three major operations within a week. At first, doctors gave him no chance of survival. Then he woke from a 17-day coma, and they said he would be a vegetable.
Today, 29-year-old Wei Kong walks, talks, works as an artist and is married with two daughters.
“A rare, successful outcome” was how his first surgeon described it, said his father Lee Swee Chit, who in 2006 sued the taxi driver’s insurers and has received some S$800,000 in damages since.
It is little compensation for what the Lee family has had to endure. “I’ve been very hurt. It threw my life into torture (sic),” said Wei Kong.
“It’s been tough,” said Swee Chit, 57. “A lot of pain ... A lot of perseverance. I’m very proud he’s come so far. But there’s still a long way.”
“It was one of the happiest moments of our life, to see him walk on his own.”
The elder Lee’s dimpled, amiable disposition darkens when recalling Wei Kong’s most intensive period of rehabilitation.
“He couldn’t even talk. He couldn’t even walk. This is something we wouldn’t even want to happen to the worst of our enemies.”
After Wei Kong was discharged from a six-month hospital stay, the Lees started him on a daily physiotherapy regime. It proved arduous even for a teenager at peak physical condition, who had excelled in rugby since his primary school days and earned a call-up to the national under-19 squad.
“He was crying … He couldn’t talk then, so he would shout,” said Swee Chit, a manager at an engineering firm. “But he was also very determined. He had fighting spirit.”
Still, at his lowest, Wei Kong’s frustration would threaten to overwhelm. “Sometimes he just wanted to give up. That was difficult for us,” said Swee Chit, his voice quivering.
“But we took it day by day. We would bring him to the Botanic Gardens, to West Coast Park to walk in the middle of the night, when not many people were there. Two of us would be at his side to hold him, and make sure he didn’t fall over.”
“When he finally could ... It was one of the happiest moments of our life, to see him able to walk on his own.”
Speech came slowly to Wei Kong, who spent nearly two years using sign language and drawings to communicate.
That wasn’t the end of his recovery process. “We never believed in letting him stay still,” said his mother Ho Siew Phin. “Whenever we had the chance, we wanted to push him as far as possible.”
His right hand, which he used to score a distinction in O-level art, remained paralysed. Despite the physiotherapist’s advice to focus on his left, his parents insisted on training the once-dominant hand, and it paid off: Not only did it start to move again, Wei Kong discovered he could still draw with it.
He would go on to hold several art exhibitions, which later served as a portfolio for his admission to the Lasalle College of the Arts in 2007.
“Nobody else wanted to take him,” admitted Swee Chit. “We approached ITE (Institute of Technical Education) first, and they didn’t accept him because they couldn’t have someone looking after him in school.”
For the next three years, that someone was Wei Kong’s mother, 56. She would attend classes with him, record everything, listen to the tapes at home, teach him again, and help with homework.
As Ms Ho, who stopped work as a kindergarten teacher for seven years to care for Wei Kong, put it: “Three people graduated with one diploma in fine art.”
“Physically, he’s there; but mentally, he’s a bit slow.”
Once he could walk, Wei Kong’s father began re-teaching him how to swim and cycle – though with no small amount of fretting.
“Even walking, every now and then he falls down. When he goes swimming he knocks his head. And in cycling he falls so often … He doesn’t listen. He likes to speed. He doesn’t know the dangers. He will shoot past a red traffic light five out of 10 times.”
“I follow lah,” the son laughs.
Brain injuries from the accident changed Wei Kong’s character and behaviour, his father explained.
“His judgement is not there. He doesn’t think much of consequences. Whatever he wants to say, he says. Whatever he wants to do, he must do.”
And Wei Kong, who still undergoes half-yearly medical assessments, is gentle by nature but now has trouble controlling his anger.
“Physically, he’s there; but mentally he’s a bit slow.”
“Because he looks normal, it’s caused much misunderstanding with people. Like when he goes to the market to buy food, I can see the vendor is thinking, ‘Why are you trying to be funny, speaking so slowly?’ He will also make the vendor very frustrated when he cannot make up his mind.”
He has, however, lasted two years in his current job at Westlite, which was given to him by a fellow church member and pays about S$1,800 a month.
“You cannot get an understanding employer like this,” said Swee Chit, adding that Wei Kong’s direct supervisor was sent for a course on handling autism.
“The company doesn’t even need to paint the walls … They were good enough to bend their policy to accommodate him.”
“I’m very thankful and grateful.”
“If more companies in Singapore are willing to be more flexible with low-functioning people, there’s hope for many of them,” Swee Chit declared.
“He still has a certain pride and dignity.”
When talking about his job - painting murals at the Westlite workers’ dormitory in Jurong - Wei Kong laments his “art is not very good now” and that God wants him to become a pastor.
It prompts a stern lecture from his father. “Wei Kong, your boss wants you to come in the morning to work, and go back in the evening like a normal person. So you don’t have to depend on your parents.”
“You must believe you are a normal person. You must behave like a normal person.”
“I am,” Wei Kong insists.
After he graduated from Lasalle, Wei Kong's parents could not find a suitable art-related job for him. So they decided to be less concerned with the nature of work than with him being gainfully employed.
Between 2010 and 2015, he tried more than 10 different jobs. None lasted more than six months.
“At first he was waiting tables, but his coordination was not so good and he tended to break things. He broke a plate costing more than his salary, and it was also difficult to train him to accept orders,” said Swee Chit.
“After that, he was washing, cleaning tables at a hawker centre. It was so sad for me to see ...”
“I cried seeing him do that,” said Ms Ho, her eyes reddening.
“But I didn’t mind,” her husband continued. “If he has to suffer, to make himself employed … I would ask him to do it. But even this job didn’t last long.”
“Usually, when I approach an employer, they don’t mind helping. But after knowing his limitations, they come tell me ‘Sorry, it’s not working out, Wei Kong is more of a hindrance than a help’.”
“He likes to talk to other people and disturb them while they’re working. Then he just thinks why are people not talking to him. He doesn’t understand working culture. He doesn’t understand social norms.”
“I can now,” Wei Kong muttered.
He said the biggest positive for his son is the feeling of contributing to family.
“He still has a certain pride and dignity. When he was rugby captain from primary to secondary school to junior college, he was always the alpha male. And that's not lost in him."
"The frustration is that he cannot be an alpha male today, but at least with the work now, he is helping the family, and that makes him hopeful there’s a future for him.”
“Society here has to accept there are people who need help.”
Wei Kong is teaching his youngest daughter, Emma, how to say “thank you” in Mandarin. “She’s clever, everybody says so.” He offers the one-year-old a drink, lifts her on his lap, and gives her a tender kiss on the forehead.
“I hope Emma and Esther (the older daughter, 3) can grow well and do work properly.” He turns and whispers: “And I want a son.”
Wei Kong’s courtship and eventual marriage to China native Chen Xiaoli, 28, was initiated by his parents back in 2011.
“Knowing his situation, we didn’t want him to go out there and anyhow get anybody,” Swee Chit explained. “And my wife had a colleague from China, who had a niece, who didn’t mind.”
The Lees flew to China to meet Ms Chen’s family and colleagues. “As a nurse, Xiaoli’s seen a lot of these cases so she can understand Wei Kong’s position,” said Swee Chit.
The couple married in 2013. Although they still live with Mr and Mrs Lee - as well as Wei Kong’s younger sister LeAnn who works as a lawyer - they will have their own flat in July.
“When his daughters grow up … Everything will be good,” said Swee Chit.
Outside of family and church, Wei Kong has little by way of social circles. “I’m losing my companionship with a lot of my contacts on Facebook and WhatsApp,” he complained.
Said his father: “He makes friends easily and loses friend easily, because he gets very demanding. He still hasn’t learned how to interact with people.”
“I think social media has caused a lot of problems for us. When he learns about some friends doing better, he compares himself with them and wants to be like them.”
“Society can be very cruel,” said the father, his voice lowered.
“Society here has to accept there are people who need help. They have to understand … to include people like him rather than stick to policies where this cannot, that cannot.”
But he also acknowledged that in Wei Kong’s case, his society - from church to employer - had helped make it easier on the parents.
“It’s not our effort alone to make him what he is today. It’s the effort of everybody who did a small part to help him along the way.”
“On our own, I don’t think we can. I would have given up and told him to stay at home, sleep, watch TV.”
“Before me and her go, everything must be in place.”
“Wei Kong, are you happy?”
“I’m not sure," he pauses. "At least I have a job, so I can support my family. So my parents can live life peacefully and without struggle. I want do something productive, positive in life. I don’t want to sit and rot.”
Since the accident, Wei Kong’s parents have had little choice but to lay out a long-term plan for his life, said Swee Chit.
“I thought about it very hard when he was recuperating. Right from the day he was discharged from hospital.”
“I have to make decisions for him. That’s the most difficult part, and sometimes we end up in a big argument. But I cannot allow his irrational thinking to determine his future.”
“Before me and her go, everything must be in place. LeAnn has been helpful, supportive and understanding… and I will be depending on her to look after affairs when I’m no longer around. This itself is very comforting to us.”
Have they suffered, as their son feels?
“As a parent, I don’t consider any of this a sacrifice. It’s our job to see our children through thick and thin.”
And today, Wei Kong is still growing up slowly as a child would, yet to become a teenager and then an adult, said both Mr and Mrs Lee.
“We can see he’s getting better each day,” said Swee Chit. “As he gets older, he will become mellower and accept what he is.”
“As parents, we will always have a lot of worries and concerns and fears. But there’s a better future. There’s still hope he can live a normal life.”
29 January 2017