Mr Muhammad Haikal Johari was riding high in a career in Thailand’s culinary scene when a motorcycle accident in 2015 changed it all. Doctors said that he would be paralysed for life from the spinal cord injuries that he sustained. Two and a half years on, Haikal defied doctors’ prognosis and could walk again with some assistance. A chef by profession, he also went on to start his own restaurant. He shares more of his story with SPD’s senior advocacy analyst Poh Sho Siam.
Haikal is a busy man, or perhaps a “workaholic” would be a more apt description of the man. He works six days a week as executive chef at Alma by Juan Amador, a Michelin star restaurant in Singapore and flies periodically to Bangkok to assist in operations at the restaurant he worked at before the accident. He also found time to start his own fine-dining restaurant called Backyard Kitchen earlier this year, through which he hopes to bring more choices of halal fine-dining and modernised Malay cuisine to his customers.
Despite what he has achieved since the accident, including being part of the team that earned Alma restaurant a Michelin star, the 41-year-old is still trying to come to terms with his disability. Till today, there are times when his condition gets him down, such as when he is unable to perform some of the daily activities independently, including toileting. This, for someone who used to lead an active lifestyle and enjoyed extreme sports, is extremely frustrating. However, he tries to keep a positive attitude.
“There is no time to cry, as crying doesn’t help with anything. You just have to bulldoze your way through. There is no other choice (but to strive on),” he said. Work helps to keep him busy and instil routine and normality in life. “Otherwise, time might be spent feeling down or sorry,” he added.
While attending rehabilitation at SPD under the Transition to Employment programme, Haikal met people with similar injuries. Getting to know others with similar conditions has helped to build up his confidence, given him hope and encouraged him to stay positive. While he admits that his body does not feel the same every day he would always remind himself that “today is better than yesterday!” He is grateful to his physiotherapist Pauline Koh, whom he feels could relate to him when he expresses his physical pains and strains.
At SPD, Haikal also met individuals with severe disabilities who had to deal with other struggles, such as financial difficulties. He could not imagine having to cope with other challenges while struggling with physical immobility every day. This was when it struck him that despite his disability, he was in a better situation than others. “I am more aware (of the needs of others) now and would love to help, if possible,” he said. “We should be sharing, helping one another, as others also help me back.” Seeing how others are not giving up also motivates him to do the same.
Throughout his rehabilitation journey, he is especially thankful to his wife, Mdm Rafiqah Soh, who accompanies him everywhere he goes to assist him when needed, and helping him with the kitchen proceedings while he supervises his crew from his wheelchair. The accident has changed her life completely and he appreciates her dedication as he felt that not everyone would have had the will to stick through thick and thin with him. He jokingly said that his wife is now his bodyguard, private-hire driver and kitchen helper. He also spends more time with his children now than when he was based in Bangkok. “I lose some, I gain some, so I cannot complain too much,” he acknowledged.
Haikal and his family are still learning and finding ways to manage life better, such as juggling his work and therapy schedules, and making adaptations to enable him to carry out tasks on his own. He also wants to work on overcoming the inhibitions of being in the public in a wheelchair and being viewed as a person with disability.
Although Haikal does not see himself as a strong person, his determination to get better and his willingness to share and acknowledge his inner challenges has demonstrated otherwise. He has come a long way since the accident and we believe that he is certainly up to achieving another Michelin star. We wish him all the best!