He's just a regular guy 'with a twist': Acid attack survivor doesn't let his condition define him

Survivor of acid attack in infancy doesn't let his medical condition - or achievements - define him

While many would consider 20-year-old Samuel Lim a young man with prodigious talents in music and language, the self-effacing Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduate thinks he is nothing special.

He holds a Grade 9 with distinction in Chinese string instrument guzheng and a Grade 8 in both piano and music theory.

"I am just a boring person with an interesting history," said Mr Lim matter-of-factly.

An interesting history, but also a tragic one. On June 29, 1999, he made the headlines as Singapore's "miracle acid attack baby" - a label he could not get rid of growing up.

When he was three months old, a maid poured sulphuric acid down his throat, burning his vocal tract. The incident left him with speech impairment.

He was at his grandmother's flat and the two maids the family hired did not get along with each other.

One of them was jealous that the other seemed to be doing a better job than her at being a maid, so when she was alone with the baby, she attacked him.

The baby was rushed to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at the National University Hospital.

By then, the acid had burned his tongue, chin, upper airway and gastrointestinal tract.

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Fortunately, his voice box was not affected. A tracheostomy tube which now sticks out of Mr Lim's neck helps him to breathe and talk.

To speak, he blocks the tube with his finger and out of his mouth comes a high-pitched, airy and sometimes squeaky voice.

As his tongue is "like a small ball", he cannot pronounce certain words, such as "king" and "card", as well as "game" and "gave", because they are made with the back of the tongue.

This journalist got to know Mr Lim as a classmate in Secondary 3 in Yuan Ching Secondary School.

At first, to hear him speak, students had to crane their necks towards him to catch his words.

It took some getting used to but conversations with him are now easy, even in crowded malls. He no longer needs to type out what he wants to say on his smartphone.

But there are reminders of his past. A tracheostomy tube holder goes around his neck, where a large scar sits. People do stare and wonder, said Mr Lim.

Although he made the news several times growing up, it was often as the "acid boy" who did well - such as when he received the SPD Youth Aspiration Award in 2014, and when he scored an L1R5 of nine points for his O-level exams in 2016.

But when he was invited to perform the guzheng and piano in televised charity fund-raisers in 2015 and 2017, it was because of his talents, he said.

"I feel that neither my medical condition nor achievements alone are sufficient in defining 'me', as both aspects have paved and will continue to pave my life."

The "me" he defines does not consider it strange to feed himself eight packets of liquid formula a day by connecting a gastrostomy tube to a hole in his stomach and pouring the liquid - which he calls his "milk" - into it.

Mr Lim is a fighter. He has had to endure about 10 operations - he has lost count - because of intestinal obstructions, which were a regular occurrence when he was a child, and to improve the quality of his life.

The last operation he underwent was in 2017, after his A levels, to improve his ability to breathe. "It's just like a normal visit to the hospital, in and out of the ward," he said.

Mr Lim, who majors in linguistics and multilingual studies at NTU, wants to research the relationship between language and society to find the root causes of discrimination. He also wants to study why people with disabilities like him are stereotyped.

"I feel that people talk about medical conditions and treat them as 'disabilities' instead of 'traits' or 'unique behaviours'," Mr Lim said.

But he insisted that he is not different. "I'm just a stereotypical boy with a twist, living in the present."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2019, with the headline He's just a regular guy 'with a twist': Acid attack survivor doesn't let his condition define him. Subscribe