Health, School

From trauma to true story: The man behind short film Unbroken

By Matthew Quek , 30 October 2021


When Matthew Quek’s mother went into shock just before delivering him, it left him with a severe birth defect that affected his brain. This led to him having dyslexia, dyspraxia (developmental coordination disorder), dyscalculia and Asperger’s syndrome, which is a kind of autism spectrum disorder.

Struggling through most of his school life and especially during his National Service days, Matthew shares how he bounced back from his traumatic past to become a singer-songwriter, educator, executive movie producer and special educational needs counsellor.

From a very early age, I was forced to open my eyes to human nature at its ugliest.

I have traumatic memories of being called “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow” and “useless” by my peers.

I was slow at executing everyday routines and learning basic things like tying my shoelaces and flossing my teeth. It would take me ages to learn it, and I would have to relearn it because I would forget.

I also had difficulty learning how to read and write.

My mother had to hold me by the hand and go through every single letter of the alphabet. Doing mental sums, too, were horribly traumatic because of my dyscalculia.

As such, I had to work much harder than others just to barely keep up. Since young I had resigned myself to my fate, thinking that I was destined to be a failure.

My family was the silver lining amid the frequent clouds of gloom.

My parents and sister were very understanding and supportive. They always told me that my character and the motive of my heart were far more important than all the distinctions one could get.

But I just could not buy that. How could having a good character and heart help anybody get a better life? If anything, it got me into more trouble.

In Primary 6, when my dad asked me on my birthday what I would like to ask God for, I mockingly said: “As if God would give me four A-stars. Look at the way I’m failing every day. Yeah, sure I’ll ask Him for it, but I’m sure it will never happen.”

I did not expect myself to score well. But deep down inside, I was longing for a miracle.

Matthew with his wife (standing) and his immediate family.

To my great surprise, I got it.

I knew it was beyond my ability, even though I had worked hard. It was a milestone for me because people thought my results must have been an error. 

This became a watershed event my dad would often refer to as evidence of God’s work.

In my joy at having achieved the impossible, I began to think that this “one-off miracle” was all that I needed to get my life back on track, and that I was back in the driver’s seat.

The bullying worsens

I went into an all-boys secondary school, believing that my troubles were behind me. I was in for a surprise.

Life was worse than when I was in primary school, due to my learning difficulties and issues with motor skills. 

It was especially hard because of how bad I was at mathematics and science-related subjects. I could not get a even a lab experiment right.

If one is not cool or sporty, or does not do well academically, then one is not regarded as someone of value.

Working hard through repetition – which I had done previously – did not work in secondary school.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not execute tasks that required the use of the left hemisphere of my brain.

I discovered that if one is not cool or sporty, or does not do well academically, then one is not regarded as someone of value.

I was really traumatised by the bullying that was much more overt in secondary school. 

Some of my teachers, who mistook my slowness for laziness and would made fun of me in class.

I could not execute tasks that required the use of the left hemisphere of my brain.

When it was time for me to do my ‘O’ levels, I was certain I was not going to witness the same miracle a second time around.

In fact, I was making plans to get a job, while holding out in some faint hope that my efforts to work harder than anybody else in my class would somehow amount to something concrete.

To the surprise of my friends and even the teachers who looked down on me, I did well. I performed much better than anybody expected me to. 

This was another unexplainable miracle, especially in the light of my lack of faith and gratitude towards God as I focused on the pain, unfairness and injustice of it all.

Discovering my gift

In junior college, the story repeated itself: I was not like the popular kids and could not fit in with the party crowd. People thought I was weird.

I had only one good friend who was also considered a loner. So we formed what we dubbed the “Lonely Men Society”.

But even while I was ostracised, I discovered a gift that God had given me.

I enjoyed my time as a bass section leader in the college choir. I was also assigned to sing the National Anthem solo without any music during the morning school assembly, which led to my nickname “Mr Majulah Singapura”.

Singing the National Anthem at school assembly was Matthew’s first real exposure to standing up in front of a crowd to perform.

It was a baptism of fire. 

Because of my dyspraxia and coordination issues, it was difficult to figure out how singing was done mechanically and biologically. 

I was as stiff as an oak tree. It took me a while to get out of my shell, to be comfortable and able to express myself in front of a crowd.

Matthew would go to collaborate and produce four albums with his sister Dorcas. Their songs explore the deeper meaning of life.

In JC, people like my choir and history teachers were a great source of encouragement.

They saw me as a person who was really trying his best, not a “results-churning machine”.

Two caring history teachers who treated me as an individual and instilled in me a love for the subject changed my perception of teaching. I see them as God-sent.

Even though I was often failing, they valued my effort. They did not treat me in a special way; they saw me as a person who was really trying his best, not a “results-churning machine”.

Because of them, I told myself that if I were ever to become a teacher, I would want to help those who are different and academically challenged.

Inexplicably, I made it past ‘A’ levels successfully. And years later, became a history teacher  – my tribute to them.

Inspired by teachers he encountered during junior college, Matthew went on to become an educator for 15 years.

Army daze(d)

When I went into National Service, my platoon mates moved much faster than me. I was expected to catch up with them. But I was unable to synchronise my actions, strip my rifle, shoot targets, march in time or do most basic tasks one would expect of soldiers.

My platoon commander was heading what others called the “devil’s platoon”, and I was often in trouble.

I was a bully, but my own battles were tearing me apart. This is how my life was turned around

We were collectively punished which meant that my platoon mates had to share the burden of my penalties. I was scoffed at as a “slacker” and was the victim of bullying by my superiors and mates, who thought I was skiving.

My clothes were frequently stolen, and I was the “honorary member” of the “blanket party”, a hazing activity where one would be covered with a blanket and whacked. My 11B (Singapore Armed Forces identity card) also mysteriously went missing.

It was towards the tail end of my mandatory 2.5 years, and after repeated testing, that the Army physicians confirmed the private specialists’ diagnosis about the severity of my learning challenges. I was diagnosed as having special educational needs (SEN). 

Now I had a name for my conditions, but it did not take away the debilitating effects of trauma I experienced in school and especially in the Army.

I contemplated attempting suicide to end it all.

Besides being able to sing, Matthew is a competent pianist.

But it was in the Army I learnt many valuable life lessons too. 

Despite having ‘A’ levels, I felt a connection with the soldiers in my unit who were not regarded highly because of their alleged lower academic prowess. 

When those “valued by society” would give me hell, and it was these “rejects of society” who warded off the bullies.

I helped them when they asked for it, and I often chatted with them openly.

My closest friends were the “rejects of society” who were looked down on by others who had more intellectual abilities. But they would go all out to protect a friend.

There were instances when those who were “valued by society” would give me hell, and it was these “rejects of society” who warded off the bullies.

I began to see paradoxes that I would have never perceived if everything had been going smoothly for me. It was as if God had put me through his own “boot camp”.

Unfazed, undeterred

It is clear to me that God intervened through major milestones of my life when I thought it was all over for me – through my PSLE, ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, NS …. then university, 15 years as an MOE teacher, being married to my first and only girlfriend who loves and accepts me in spite of my challenges, and currently as an SEN counsellor.

Though fraught with pain, tears and sorrow, those trials demonstrated that with God, nothing is impossible. 

Matthew and his wife An-Dian were childhood friends who grew up in the same church. They only started dating after getting to know each other better through Varsity Christian Fellowship.

I also released a film based on my life story titled Unbroken three years ago.

While developing my seventh and eighth music albums, I got to know local film director, Kelvin Sng and pitched my story to him. He was interested, but said that I had to raise funds myself.

At that time, I was still a school teacher and had to grapple with lessons, marking, discipline and CCAs. But in under six months, God helped us to raise the full amount needed for a 20-minute film.

One of our sponsors, TOUCH Community Services, allowed us to use their auditorium for the film premiere. We were also invited by schools, organisations, churches and even politicians to screen the movie and help others understand the spirit behind inclusiveness. 

is deeply personal as this movie is based on how God has been working through my life.

The film revolves around a defenceless young boy with learning difficulties growing up in a competitive environment. It portrays his struggles and his family’s constant support as he grows up and discovers his true potential.

I used the imagery of a roly-poly toy (不倒翁) in the movie to represent my feelings about myself and what some people meant to me in my life.

It is a very low-tech toy. You knock it down, and it comes back up to the centre again because it has a certain “backbone” that gets it back to its equilibrium.

The roly-poly toy represents my feelings about myself and what some people meant to me in my life.

I felt as if this unseen metaphorical “centre of gravity” that is God’s grace helped me bounce back many times through my life too.

This “centre of gravity” has also given meaning to all my suffering. 

Describing his music as reflective and provocative, Matthew sings in both English and Mandarin.

These are some Bible verses that were brought to life through the trials that God brought me through.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) 

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

Now, I can say that my purpose in life is that God wants me to be where I can reach out to those who fall through the cracks.

For if I had not been on the receiving end of bullying, loneliness, rejection and despair, how would I be able to identify and empathise with those who are undergoing similar struggles?

Matthew has also been a vocal trainer for over 10 years.

Even when I was a school teacher for over 15 years, I had to try extra hard to perform well. But what the Lord has tasked me with has kept me going all these years.

I may possess adequate survival skills to appear as if I am functioning normally in terms of my verbal, written and musical skills. But when I work on tasks that are hampered by the deficient areas in the left hemisphere of my brain, those flaws cannot be concealed.

Perhaps I was enabled to produce this movie to propagate His message that one’s true worth is determined by God rather than by one’s apparent physical or even spiritual accomplishments.

Celebrating individuals with special needs

Last year, after I began my new vocation as an SEN counsellor, I was moved by the need to produce another film. This time on the effects the lockdown has had on caregivers and those with SEN.

The Prism is based on the life of an individual with autism spectrum disorder, multiple invisible SEN and the struggles his caregivers face amid unemployment, retrenchment, discrimination and mental health challenges.

It has not been easy to produce, get sponsorship and market a movie especially because of safe-distancing measurements and entities tightening their belts in light of economic austerity. But I pray that God can use it to touch the lives of families out there who can relate.

It is meant to be another emotive and inspiring movie like Unbroken. 

Member of Parliament Denise Phua singing along with Matthew during The Purple Parade in 2015.

I also hope that parents can see their kids from a different perspective. That is, for the person they are inside, instead of the abilities they appear to have or not have. 

If the lenses of one’s heart can change radically, then things in life will change for the better. That is why I named the movie The Prism.

The movie has been granted partial funding by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and SG Enable, and we also crowdfunded to raise the remaining amount. The short film is scheduled to be released by December.

The intrinsic worth of a person is not based on what we achieve but who we are in Christ.

What God has been drumming into me throughout my life: The intrinsic worth of a person is not based on what we achieve but who we are in Christ.

Jesus, who is Himself God, deliberately relinquished His heavenly privileges and status to come to this earth. He assumed the form of man and died for our sins.

My identity lies only in Christ and what He has done on the Cross for me – not on how the world sees my accomplishments.

I thank God that He uses the weak and those whom the world regards as useless to show His power and glory (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in

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