Thanks CaringSG for the feature! It is an honour to be invited to join CaringSG’s pioneering group of CAREconnect champions to support fellow special needs caregivers.
We all have been there before, that moment when a bombshell was dropped on us when we received news about our children’s diagnosis, be it for a special educational need, a medical condition, etc.
What better way than to have a group of caregivers who have gone through similar experiences whom you can draw strength from and turn to for guidance.
A ground up initiative, CaringSG is a platform that brings together the various support groups and makes it easy for caregivers to reach out to other caregivers. It does not have to be a lonely journey.
Photo credit: Vernon Leow
Google Willin Low and the search engine throws up a list of write-ups about him. A lawyer-turned-chef/restaurateur, Willin left his cushy career as a lawyer after eight years to pursue his dream as a chef.
While most people know Willin as the chef/restaurateur behind Wild Rocket, his flagship restaurant that has not only hosted our Prime Minister, celebrities and dignitaries, he was also named one of three chefs to change the Singapore culinary scene by The New York Times.
He is the originator of “Mod Sin” or Modern Singaporean cuisine, a term coined by Willin when he was studying in the UK and describes his style of cuisine.
I understand you have not been officially diagnosed with dyslexia. It was your brother, a doctor, who suspected you could be dyslexic. Could you tell us what led to that suspicion?
I was getting the names of people wrong again. I usually only remember the first letter of the names. For example, if someone is called Andrew, I will always say that person’s name starts with the letter A. And on one such occasion, my brother, a doctor, said “I think you are dyslexic!” And proceeded to ask me a few other questions before concluding that I am. And it was at this point that everything suddenly made sense to me.
As a student, what struggles did you face?
There were three subjects that I just could not follow as a student:
1. Chemistry in Upper Secondary, especially the periodic table. It was just a nightmare and my Chemistry teacher kept picking on me and taunting me. She made life hell for me. I guess you can say we did not have much chemistry (smiles). I learnt that in life, not everyone will like you or make life a breeze for you.
2. Economics in JC. I just could not follow any of the concepts. It was as though everything was taught in a foreign language. Later on in life as I ran my own restaurants, I understand all the economic concepts so easily and wondered why I never did well in Economics.
3. Accounting. I did a module in accounts in university and it was the worst thing ever. All the numbers and tables just looked completely alien. I think my professor passed me out of pity (laughs).
How did you manage to do so well academically and ended up reading law in university? Given the heavy reading involved, how did you cope?
Reading isn’t a problem for me as much as writing is. Chinese characters and numbers are much more difficult for me. I recall being in tears in kindergarten as I kept writing the mirror image of the Chinese character for knife (刀). Spelling is also an issue. I tend to spell words as I hear them. My parents blamed my carelessness. Since I didn’t know I was dyslexic, I just assumed everyone else had the same problems as me. I kept calm and carried on.
What got you started on your journey to becoming a chef? Was cooking something you have always been passionate about? How was that passion cultivated?
I love eating and I am a very fussy eater. When I was a student in the UK, the food at the halls of residence was dismal and out of necessity, I started cooking and soon discovered another passion, that I love making people happy through food.
How was your flagship restaurant, Wild Rocket conceptualised and what was the creative process that went into the creation of the dishes? I read that you love taking apart what is a traditional dish, rehash them and change it into something different while retaining the spirit of the dish. Was it something very spontaneous and instinctive to you?
Again, it started when I was cooking in the UK. I missed Singapore food but could never find all the ingredients I needed so I had to improvise with whatever I could get my hands on. The result never looked like Singapore food but always tasted like home. I call this cuisine Mod Sin and it stuck. Yes, creating dishes come quite instinctively and most times, I taste the food in my head first before I cook it and taste it in my mouth. And all my food creations start with drawings.
Dyslexics are known to be strategic, big picture thinkers. How do you think that might have helped you in your role as a chef/restaurateur?
Ah, another piece of the puzzle (laughs). I did not realise it was linked to my dyslexia. Yes, I am always looking at the big picture of what I want to achieve, whether it’s the Mod Sin cuisine or more specifically my restaurants, and it serves as a guiding principle for the steps I take thereafter.
As an adult now, do you struggle with things that dyslexics tend to be weaker at, such as poor working memory, slow processing speed and organisation of thoughts. Can you give some examples?
In order for me to understand anything, I need to organise it in a way that I can understand. I draw mind maps to see the overall big picture in order to understand the small details.
I also cannot concentrate on just doing one thing. I need to do many things at the same time. I suspect I may have ADHD. I manage by doing three things at one time so I can concentrate. For example, I will study Japanese, exercise and watch tv at the same time.
I will think in my head the correct telephone or account number but when I type it out it’s wrong. This happens regularly and I manage by checking and rechecking when I do online banking.
Verbal directions are most stressful. I cannot follow after the second step. To manage, I take videos of demonstrations on how to operate electronic gadgets.
Lastly, you were part of a movement called Life Beyond Grades, where its aim is to remind parents and children alike that grades do not define us. How did your parents encourage you as a child/student?
On the eve of my Secondary 2 geography exams, I was panicking because I was ill prepared. Dad told me it’s ok to fail, but important to learn from the failure. He said failing isn’t the end of the world so don’t worry, keep calm and carry on.
Matthias was diagnosed with dyslexia in primary school. He survived Singapore's demanding education system and went on to graduate with a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering. Feeling lost at one point as to what he should do after completing his National Service, he decided to give a shot at metal fabrication, a trade he was exposed to at a young age by his parents. Besides working in the family business, Matthias also founded Baremetalco, a business with a focus on creative and artistic metal fabrication.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Matthias Yong and I am 25 years old. I am a second generation, and probably one of the youngest metal fabricators, in Singapore. My parents are in the business of fabricating stainless steel kitchen equipment/industrial metal fabrications and I work full time in the family business. I also have a company which I set up about two years ago, called Baremetalco, that focuses on creative and artistic metal fabrication. I went through the Singapore education system, completed my N level, then graduated with a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering.
When did you first know that you have dyslexia and how was it brought up or the circumstance that led to the knowledge of your condition?
I cannot remember when I first knew I was dyslexic but I have the impression it was my P1 English teacher who told my parents I had learning difficulties and recommended that they sent me to DAS. I just thought I was slower and had to attend ‘special tuition’ at DAS. It was not until I was much older, between my upper secondary and polytechnic period, where I got curious about why I was different from other children, and started finding out more about the condition.
What was going to school like for you? What did you like/dislike about our education system from a dyslexic’s perspective?
Our education system is too academically focused. Opportunities are given based on grades. As I was always borderline in my studies, I did not get to choose what I wanted to study/do. Needless to say, school was hard for me, especially during lower primary, where I struggled with simple tasks like ordering food. I remember ordering from the same stall every day because I was scared or did not know how to order from other stalls. In class, I would get stressed out from reading a passage or writing the answer on the board as it would usually end up with my classmates laughing at my silly mistakes.
What kind of help or intervention did you receive for your dyslexia and what role did your parents/teachers play in supporting/encouraging you in that journey?
My parents enrolled me at DAS and I was there until I finished secondary school. Being exempted from taking a second language also helped, as well as having 15 minutes extra time during examinations. In my secondary school, there was a special needs teacher/counsellor whom I could turn to to talk about the problems and struggles I faced.
When did you start developing an interest in metal work and how did it begin?
My interest developed about three years ago. Although I have been helping out at my parents’ workshop during the school holidays since young, I did not quite enjoy it. Maybe my parents had in mind to equip me with a skill since I was not doing well academically and thought it might be useful.
In the last year of my diploma course when I knew that I did not do well enough to qualify for university, I felt lost. During my National Service days, I had time to think and reflect on what I wanted to do. Many people advised me to do what I am good at, so I decided to give metal fabrication a shot.
Dyslexics are known to be creative and have great perceptual talent. I understand you are into creative and artistic metal fabrication. What is it like for you when you are creating? What goes on in your mind, if you can describe for us? And what is your vision for Baremetalco?
Sheet metal fabrication is very similar to origami. In my creation process, I see the end product and I can rotate the object in different directions, much like what you see in those computer-aided designs. Sometimes I have to have an exploded view, where everything comes apart and I have to think of how to make and fit each part together. It is like pre-planning and walking through the process before actually getting down to doing it. I am not sure if it is my dyslexia but I can visualise things better and faster and I find that it benefited me a lot. Especially in customised fabrication where I am always creating something different each time.
My immediate focus for Baremetalco is sustainability. As I work in the family business, I begin to see the problems and issues the manufacturing/fabrication industry faces in Singapore. I started to think of ways to differentiate ourselves from others and how to continue operating in Singapore’s environment as more and more workshops are closing down. That was when Baremetalco was born. I realised that the more complicated it is to fabricate something, the better positioned we are in getting the job.
Although you are out of the education system, does dyslexia still affect you in any way, whether in your work environment or interactions with others? What are some of the struggles you still have to deal with?
One of my struggles is articulating my thoughts and expressing myself. Sometimes, what I said do not even sound right when I think about it. As for work, thankfully we express a lot through sketches and drawings. I still have self-esteem issue because of my earlier years of being dyslexic. I tend to be quieter, even now.
Do you think dyslexics are often misunderstood by others and what would you say to people who do not understand what being dyslexic is like?
I disclosed that I am dyslexic to friends only recently. I do not think they are bothered or see it as an issue but this was not the case when I was younger, where I would be made fun of and laughed at. Looking back, I would tell my classmates that we are a bit slower in learning, that is why we made those silly mistakes. I feel that who I am now is partly the effect of those past experiences I went through when younger, such as self-esteem issue. Tried as I might (my friends used to tell me to be more open), sometimes I find that my friends still do not understand my challenges.
Lastly, any words of encouragement or advice to give to our parents and dyslexic children?
While academic is important, I hope that parents can help their children discover what they are good at, their strengths and support them, help them develop further. I know the circumstances are different for each one but seeing how stressful our children have to go through in their academic pursuits, I would definitely encourage parents to find avenues to nurture their children’s creativity. I was fortunate that my parents exposed me to what they were doing since young. In similar ways, let your children explore and expose them.
To the children, do not let your grades define who you are. Try to pick up something you are good at, like a skill, along the way.
Chef Khaled suffered a lot as a kid growing up in Egypt, especially in school. Not knowing that he is dyslexic, he was frequently beaten by his teachers for not doing well and was called stupid and other names by family and friends. That dealt a huge blow to his self-esteem. Not until he was diagnosed with dyslexia a few years ago did he figure out an explanation for what happened to him as a child.
Chef Khaled was very supportive when I approached him to share his story. He said that if what he went through could serve as an encouragement to someone, he would be more than honored to do so. You can also check out his restaurant at Wheelock Place and meet the man himself!
Could you share with us a bit of your background, where did you come from and what brought you to Singapore?
I was from Egypt. For the past 17 years, I have been working as a chef overseas and have travelled to about 19 countries. My last assignment was at the Four Seasons in Mumbai and Maldives. I met my Singaporean wife in Seychelles and in 2010, relocated to Singapore to work at the Shangri-La Hotel. Three years ago, I started my own restaurant called Pistachio, specialising in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. I am also an Ayurvedic chef.
I understand you did not know you were dyslexic until you were tested a few years ago, is that right? Could you tell us how that happened?
In 2012, I saw a doctor at Raffles Hospital for depression. Subsequently, I was transferred to another doctor who started asking me very detailed questions. After the three-hour session, I was told that I was dyslexic and that the cause for my depression could possibly stem from my dyslexia. To think that I merely went in for a depression consultation and came out with a severely dyslexia diagnosis! But it explains many of the issues I am facing.
Can you recall how studying was like for you when you were younger?
It was terrible. I got tortured in school. I disliked going to school since I was five, as I was afraid of getting beaten by the teachers, especially during exams. So I would run away. I never dared show my dad my exam result. I would hide the papers and tried to duplicate his signature. I even had to resort to paying the teachers in order to stop them from beating me.
I was getting frustrated in school because my other classmates were doing well. For me, I had to rely on memorisation and visualisation in order to be able to answer the questions. At a young age, I was not sure why I was like that. Was I really stupid? Nobody knew about dyslexia then. I struggled the most with Arabic and Mathematics but surprisingly, English was my best subject. I was also very good at drawing and painting.
How did your family and friends treat you?
I was humiliated by my family. They said I was stupid, playful, did not study and so on. As for friends, they did not care. They probably thought that I was stupid and did not mix with me. I was lonely in school. I did not have friends. I could not answer the teachers’ questions and I did not know what was going on in class. I was very scared. I just hid in one corner and kept to myself.
I have some adult dyslexic followers on my Dyslexia Group Facebook page, some of whom have not been diagnosed but suspected they may be dyslexic. They have their fair share of struggles at work. Could you share with us what are your struggles as a working adult?
Working in 5-star hotels means I had to take care of the paperwork, in addition to cooking. I had to conduct briefings in the morning, take notes and communicate with the different departments such as accounts and sales. As head of department, I also needed to communicate with suppliers from different countries through emails. This was the toughest part for me, reading and replying emails. It would take me a long time. What takes someone 10 minutes may take me an hour or more.
When speaking to me, I may appear to be looking at you but in my mind, I may be wondering what is going on in the kitchen. And often, people misunderstand us as being rude or impolite, as we may appear to be not listening. Given our curious mind, I am always looking around, especially when I am in the kitchen. I may suddenly hear a noise and tell a staff to go inside the chiller and check if the fan is working. Or I may smell someone overcooking the garlic. All these can distract me from whatever I am doing at that point in time.
Did you know that cooking was your passion and how did you discover your love for it?
After I completed my secondary school education, I enrolled in an agricultural school, firstly because my grades were not good and secondly, my family did not have the financial means to send me for other courses. My father had kidney failure then and was hospitalised. I was the eldest of four children and had to work to support the family.
I had a neighbour at that time who could not bear the thought of me going to an agricultural school, as it was for the gangsters and drug addicts. Instead, she enrolled me in the first culinary school in Egypt and told me she would pay for all the expenses for the three-year programme, which I am very grateful for. So I successfully passed the interviews and exams and was accepted into the school.
In that three years, my self-esteem went up. I love doing hands-on things and cooking works for me. In my first year of culinary school, when I saw the teachers cooking tasty meals and plating the food nicely, I told myself I wanted to be like them. I started picking up skills in choosing ingredients, using the different equipment, preparing and plating the food. My passion started developing from there and I found myself good at cooking. I considered myself successful as a chef.
As you know, dyslexics have many strengths, most notably, they are known for their creativity and imagination. What goes through your mind when you are creating a dish? Did your creativity and imagination have a big part to play in the cooking process?
Definitely. My imagination and creativity helped me a lot. I did very well in culinary school. As a trainee chef, I was given the chance to cook for the government.
When I create a dish, I put myself in the shoes of a customer. I think about whether the food tastes and looks good, is it healthy, will it benefit the customers and will they give positive feedback. These are all my considerations when I am creating a dish.
I understand you are an Ayurvedic chef and that you help people through food. I believe not many know what Ayurveda is. Could you tell us more?
Ayurveda means Science of Life. It is an Indian medical system that dates back more than 3000 years. Since young, I have always like healthy cooking. When I became a chef, I was given an opportunity to study Ayurveda in India which led me to create Ayurvedic cuisine subsequently. Ayurveda is very scientific. It looks at the root cause of an illness or disease and I help to rebuild a person’s health through the food they eat.
Being the owner of a restaurant, would you consider hiring someone who is dyslexic? Do you think there is discrimination in the society in general towards someone who has special needs?
I have no problem hiring dyslexics because I know how to work with them. There will inevitably be discrimination in society, especially if people do not know about the challenges that come with certain condition.
For example, when I was working in the hotels, nobody knew I was dyslexic. Whenever we had meetings, I sometimes did not understand their questions and might give an incoherent reply. That made people wonder if that was just the way I was or was it because of my dyslexia.
Hence I would make it a point to tell people that if I make a mistake, please excuse me because I am dyslexic. I prefer to let people know rather than let it be the cause of any misunderstanding. I also do not wish people to misjudge me.
Lastly, do you have any advice for our parents on how they can better communicate with or relate to their dyslexic children?
Parents need to always encourage and support their children if they want them to do well. Also, do not call them stupid. Even if the parents do not mean it, we take it very seriously. We are very sensitive.
Chef Heman aka Ironman Chef, is multi-talented. He is first of all an accomplished restauranteur and author of three books, with another on its way. To add to the list, he is also a ceramic artist, with an upcoming solo exhibition, and a triathlete. One lesser known fact is that he is also dyslexic.
How did you first find out that you are dyslexic?
I was not as fortunate to have discovered that I am dyslexic during the early days. I found out only after my youngest son was diagnosed. After his diagnosis, I started tracing back some of the problems I faced when I was younger and found similarities with what my son is experiencing. Thereafter, I went for an assessment that confirmed my dyslexia.
What was going to school like for you?
It was very tough for me back then. As you know, dyslexics tend to learn more slowly and require more time to digest information. We are definitely not as fast as the normal kids. Especially in a classroom, most of the time teachers expect their students to be able to understand and grasp what was being taught quickly. But unfortunately, it does not work that way for us. We need a lot more enlightenment and guidance. Even today, although schools know more about dyslexia, how many teachers really have the patience to teach and guide our children?
What kind of psychological or emotional struggles did you have to deal with?
As I start to recall, I actually felt scared. I could not even complete and submit my homework properly. I would copy, cheat and do all sorts of funny things. Today, it would be even more scary. Why do I say that? We have google now and everything can be found online. If the students don’t know how to do their homework, they can google. But does that mean they understand what they’re learning?
During my time, the teachers were not as good or patient. They only knew that I’m stupid and that I don’t get it. I have had one Chinese teacher who took a blue tac, threw it at me and said, “你去死吧! 你这辈子会成功, 我的头砍下来给你.” (Translation: To hell with you! If you will ever be successful in life, I’ll give you my head). But today I’ve made it. One of the lessons I learnt is this, that even if you’re ahead of others, you do not need to be so proud of it. I was lagging behind then, but today, I’ve achieved something. I want to encourage all dyslexics that you can do better than the normal people, once you understand the ingredients properly. That’s the power of dyslexia.
What kind of help did you receive with your learning?
No help at all.
We know that dyslexics are very creative. How did you discover your passion for cooking, ceramic and sports?
All these were discovered over time. We are not born to be like that. Somebody asked me. They know that I’m a triathlete and wanted to know whether I was bothered if I was not amongst the top 10. I told them no. Not that I don’t have the fighting spirit. End of the day, I believe that somebody is born to be the top, 2nd, 3rd. We are all specially designed by God. If we know that, then we hold the design properly and do what is the best for ourselves.
You said you discovered your passion over time. Which one did you get into first?
Definitely cooking. It was what I got into first in my career. My dad and uncle are vegetable dealers. We supply vegetables to restaurants. That was when I was exposed to restaurant and cooking. I was very young then, about 12, 13 years old. Ceramic was when I was at the halfway house. I met Dr Ng who got me started.
Amazingly, all three categories help me along in my difficult journey. For example, when I take part in ironman races, it helps to make sure that I polish my skills properly because there is no short cut. Imagine having to swim 3.9km, cycle for 180km and finish off with a 42km run. When you’re preparing and training for the race, you need to figure out where you need to fine tune and do better at.
What advice would you give our parents to help them discover what their children are good at?
I would encourage parents to look at their children’s interests. I think at the end of the day, parents need to have patience and spend more time with their children. If you don’t, how do you know their talents? Busy parents like us work very long hours. I always ask parents why they want to have children. If it’s just to fulfill your obligations, then it is a little bit miserable. I think our children are our property. Not only our property, they are also Mother Nature’s property. We grow as a whole, we teach, we do it together, we learn. That is human kind. So spend time with them and find out what their interests are and from there, groom them.
Did you discover what your son is good at creatively?
Some gifts don’t come so fast. That’s why I say you need to take time to observe and let them develop. Because we change. Maybe at this point of time, we find that they’re very good in reading. But maybe in another five more years, they may be good in Science. While you know that they are good in reading, good in Science, I think you hold the 2 subjects back and along the way, you can continue to fine tune and see what is good.
I am a good example myself. Today, if my son is my kind of character, I would have a problem as a parent. Because I love cooking, ceramic art and sports, so what is my love? What is my specialization? I always tell people my specialization is all those. But unfortunately most of the time, the world wants a specialist. I think for dyslexics, you can’t just limit them to one area of creativity. So the answer is, we just need to have a little patience. Stay with them but along the way, they have to talk to people to fine tune and self-discover.
Is there someone in your life that plays a big part in influencing your outlook in life and belief that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to?
If you read my book, Dr Ng is one person who influences me a lot. He influenced me in ceramic art. If you know the whole entire art, first ceramic is 3D, not 2D. It involves a lot of techniques. Not just an art, art. You need to understand clay properly so that it will not dry up or crack along the way. You also need to learn how to fire properly, learn how to glaze and how to join. So the whole entire art teaches me, like what I said earlier on, that understanding the ingredients is very important.
Being a parent as well as someone with dyslexia, could you give our parents some advice on how to handle their children who are facing low self-esteem issues and are struggling academically?
I think the important thing is first, work with DAS. Let them help with certain techniques but along the way, while the help is in place, understanding your child and spending time with them is the other key thing. Don’t throw them aside. 不要让他们自生自灭 (Translation: don’t leave them to their own devices).
I don’t have a chance to really talk to the schools. The community is also important. They have to be more lenient to children with dyslexia.
I know that you were bullied as a kid. What would you say to these school bullies?
My classmates and the people around me thought that I was slow and stupid and that was why I was being bullied. But I changed my character and I became a bully myself. When I bullied back, it was because I was fed up, I wanted to defend myself. But that makes the entire world worse. That’s something I don’t encourage. But what I want to share is put in more love. The whole entire community needs to be more understanding of dyslexics.
Lastly, what words of encouragement would you give our dyslexic children?
The most important of all is understand yourself, polish your strength and build up your weakness. Do your best and be your best, regardless of how little you can contribute.