Like most of the young people working at the Charles & Keith headquarters in Tai Seng Link, Mr Eddie Neo cuts a trendy, sartorially spiffy figure.
His hair barbered into the latest comb-over, the 32-year-old is decked out in a striped blouson jacket, grey sweat pants and a pair of black sequined loafers with gold tips for his interview with The Sunday Times.
What sets him apart from his colleagues are his wheelchair and his past, both of which are inextricably linked.
A former bartender and drug dealer, he was set upon by six parang- wielding gangsters when he was 19. The vicious attack left him with multiple stab wounds and extensive head injuries, which affected his mobility and motor skills.
It put to a stop his income of fast and easy money and bulldozed his dream of setting up a pub or club.
For several years, his life ground to a standstill. Picking up the pieces was a slow and tedious process.
But he is hell-bent on putting the past firmly behind him.
"There is no Take 2 in life so there's no point regretting what happened," says Mr Neo who is now a human resource (HR) coordinator at Charles & Keith, one of Singapore's famous shoe and fashion brands.
He is the elder of two children.
His father, a foreman, had three wives; Mr Neo's mother, a housewife, was the second. Theirs, he says, was not a happy union.
"I'm not sure what went on but I always heard them quarrelling when I was in bed, mostly over money and over me. Maybe because I was a bad boy," says Mr Neo, who spent his early childhood in a two-room flat in Ang Mo Kio.
Tragedy struck when he was 10 years old. Just before dawn broke one morning, he was awakened by a loud thud outside his bedroom on the second floor.
His mother had jumped from the 12th floor.
"She had postnatal depression and couldn't think straight after she gave birth to my sister," he recalls. Her death left a deep psychological scar.
"At her wake, I was not a filial son. I did not take part in the Taoist rituals because I was so scared and couldn't get the sight of her lifeless body out of my head."
Sent to live with his paternal grandparents, the former student of Townsville Primary and Whitley Secondary became reckless and rebellious. He joined a Malay street gang and got himself tattooed.
"Nobody could control me. Maybe it was my way of coping with my mother's death," says Mr Neo, who once punched his secondary school discipline master, who had caught him smoking.
He started working part-time as a waiter in a Clarke Quay bar-cum-eatery after passing his N levels.
He was taught how to mix drinks, and found that he really enjoyed bartending.
His new skills easily got him another job as a bartender at a club, also in Clarke Quay, which paid him $2,000 each month. His studies suffered; he failed his O levels.
"I thought since I could earn so much money, why study?"
Around this time, his gang leader introduced him to a drug supplier.
"He showed me a big stash of $50. I told him I wanted to be like him too," he says.
That was how he became a dealer. The teenager was smart enough not to touch the stuff himself.
"If I sold drugs and touched them at the same time, I would never have enough stock," he says.
Although peddling narcotics was lucrative, he did not give up his bartending job.
"It was my passion. I was born to do it," says Mr Neo, who was adept at flair bartending, the art of entertaining guests with bar paraphernalia and liquor bottles.
What he made from drugs, he spent.
"Old-timers told me I should never keep dirty money. So I spent it all in clubs and nightclubs," he says.
His freewheeling ways and his penchant for undercutting earned him the ire of rival bad hats.
It came to a head in the wee hours of Feb 21, 2003, when he was set upon by six rival gangsters armed with knives, parangs and pool cues near a petrol kiosk in Ang Mo Kio Street 32.
Mr Neo had five friends with him too. "My so-called brothers ran when they saw the parangs and left me alone," he says.
He was stabbed at least eight times in his back and had his skull nearly split open by a parang blow to the head. "I could still run when they stabbed me in the back. But when the parang hit my head, I got knocked out."
He was admitted into the intensive care unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) with severe head injuries, bleeding in the brain and multiple lacerations on his face and body.
Sepsis had also set in. He was in a coma for nearly four months.
After he came to, he learnt from two policemen who came to take his statement that his assailants had been caught and sentenced to six years in prison with six strokes of the rotan.
When he asked why his attackers got away so lightly, one of the policemen told him they would have been sentenced to death if he had died.
Although he was fortunate that it did not injure his deep brain tissue, the blow to his head, however, affected his nerves, motor skills and spatial adjustments.
Like a stroke victim, his mobility has been compromised and his speech is now a little slurred. His left arm and fingers are slightly deformed, and he still experiences occasional spasms in his left foot.
"Initially I could walk but I fell so often that I got scared," says Mr Neo who can walk short distances with a walking frame but moves around primarily in a wheelchair.
After spending two months in the hospital's rehabilitation centre, he was discharged in August 2013, six months after he was first admitted.
The next three years were spent at home, trapped in a maelstrom of emotions. He was filled with hatred for his assailants, and consumed by thoughts of revenge.
"I wanted to hire killers," he confesses with a rueful laugh. "But I also told myself I had to accept my condition. I was only 20. If I didn't, how would I spend the rest of my life?"
So he trained hard, lifting weights to build strength and forcing himself to walk.
A doctor later referred him to the SPD, formerly known as the Society for the Physically Disabled.
"SPD helped me a lot. I met a lot of kind people there. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am now. They helped me to get rid of my negativity and to develop a positive mindset" says Mr Neo.
"I told myself I must find all sorts of ways to find a job and equip myself with skills. Even if the job didn't pay well, I would take it for the experience," he adds.
That was how he ended up as an assistant in a book-binding company, earning just $130 a month. Things looked up after he picked up computer skills at the SPD. Between 2010 and 2013, he found employment doing administrative work and data entry for an electronics company and a printing firm.
Mr Lim Yee Ming, a trainer at SPD, first met Mr Neo six years ago at an IT workshop he was conducting. "He started out with basic stuff initially but over time, acquired more complex skills. He was very keen and enthusiastic and eager to do things on his own."
With a laugh, the 47-year-old recalls the time when Mr Neo worked on a data entry project at The Sheltered Workshop - SPD's outfit for employment and vocational training - some years ago.
"There were about 10 other workers but he was typing so fast that he was doing 50 per cent of the work. We had to tell him to slow down because the others did not have anything to do," he says.
Breaking into a smug smile, Mr Neo says: "Yes, I was a legend at SPD."
He was hired by Charles & Keith about three years ago. His first six months were spent working on the database of the company's VIP customers.
He graduated to HR work and is now tasked with troubleshooting technical problems at the brand's retail outlets.
With bread-and-butter issues sorted out, he has turned his attention to solving other problems plaguing his life.
About two years ago, the determination to get a driving licence seized him. This came after he had to wait in the rain for three hours outside Ang Mo Kio MRT station before he could get a cab to take him home.
While trying to find out how disabled people could learn to drive, he stumbled upon TTSH's Darp (Driving Assisted Rehabilitation Programme), a community outreach initiative by the National Healthcare Group.
Occupational therapist Chan Mei Leng, who is also Darp's coordinator, says Mr Neo is the first direct applicant to the programme.
Although initially sceptical that he would make the cut, she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It took two driving instructors, more than 30 lessons and four attempts but Mr Neo got his licence last year. "He is very determined. The rehab doctor said he would need a long learning curve but it didn't stop him," Dr Chan says with a chuckle.
When told that he lacked the upper body strength to turn the steering wheel, he hit the gym religiously and beavered away to prove his doubters wrong.
Dr Chan says: "People will say that those with head injuries may lack insight and over-target themselves but he is very aware of what he is doing. He is a real problem-solver."
Right now, she is helping him with his appeal to SG Enable - an agency to help people with disabilities - for a certificate of entitlement waiver.
A car will make his life a lot easier. The bus stop, Mr Neo says, is a long way from the Charles & Keith office, and taking a cab daily is costly.
"To others, a car is a luxury. To me, it is hope," says the single who lives with his octogenarian grandmother in Ang Mo Kio.
He hopes to have a shot at being promoted to outlet supervisor - a role which entails visits to the company's retail shops - if he has a car.
Asked if he has other dreams, Mr Neo - who has had a couple of relationships after his accident - grins and says: "Get married if possible."
Meanwhile, his hatred for his assailants - now released from prison - has evaporated.
"It's pointless wasting time and energy on these things. Even if they died, it cannot help me in any way.
"Anyway, I'm too busy to think about these things."
This article was first published on April 10, 2016.
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