Report from Tomorrow - Vol 38

1USD = S$1.71 (S$1 = 0.58USD)

Marriage, Singapore Style

We recently had an opportunity to attend a Chinese wedding dinner here and this gave us the opportunity to learn a bit about marriage in Singapore. Chinese wedding events are pretty simple, compared to some here. Malay weddings can take three days of events and the bride and groom are continually changing into all sorts of different clothes. We were also told it's good luck to have a token ANG MO (westerner) at one of these events. Old fashion weddings for Peranaken couples would take fourteen days! Peranakens are the only truly indigenous group to this area, a very old mixture of Chinese and Malays, with their own complex traditions.

When a couple gets married is driven to a large extent by economics here. Most Chinese get married for love as we do in the West - although not all. Apparently, arranged marriages for Indians especially, but some Chinese, still occur.

In order to encourage families, the government gives preference to couples when queuing to buy an apartment (HDB). It usually takes 2-3 years to get a place. I know one couple who will be waiting 5 years because they chose a new housing area that is just being built. Singles cannot even get in the queue until they are 35.

Twice in your life you can get a discount of about S$40,000 from HDB - on your first and last purchase. Once you buy an HDB flat, you cannot sell it for 5 years. So a common practice is to purchase your flat, live there for 5 years, then sell it on the market - thereby netting S$40,000 profit plus whatever the flat has appreciated on the open market.

This being the case, most Singapore couples go to the Registry of Marriage (ROM) and become legally married several years before they begin married life together. Sometimes the couple lives with a parent, but it is more common to live apart at home during this time. Sometimes they can find a place to live together, but the economics of it all make that difficult. Instead, they live apart and save like mad for their own HDB flat.

And divorce is not possible during this time either. Once you go to ROM, you're stuck for two years. Mary's met some woman who have been trapped in very ugly marriages by this law.

Some months before they get the flat, they have wedding pictures taken. This is a BIG DEAL. They get dressed up in their wedding clothes (I've only seen western wedding clothes, but I'm sure this applies to those who follow other traditions) and go all over the city having pictures taken outdoors, indoors, at temples, at sun up, at sun down etc. etc. This leaves them with a huge book of pictures (75+), many of them 11x14.

When the couple do get a flat, they hold their wedding dinner. This is just a celebration of their friends of the event, starting their life together. It's often held at some fancy hotel and is what we attended. I was assured what we experienced was "typical Chinese". Later a Chinese from China was asked how "typical" this was and he declared it a completely new experience. So, apparently, Singapore's Chinese tradition is pretty unique. I suspect Chinese Malay weddings are very similar.

Our dinner was a traditional multi-course (8 would be a likely guess) dinner. We were in a room of about 300 people. All of us bank people were together, including a very few ANG MOs (whites). The invitation said "7:30 sharp" and we arrived on time to an almost empty dining room. Seems everyone else knew this was not to start for another 30-45 minutes.

The food was very good, plentiful and the beverage glasses (including beer) were kept full. There was a large cake to cut and a bottle of champagne to open by the groom. The couple were toasted by a young man (presumably the best man). It all looked pretty western.

As the meal wore on, the bride and groom visited each table and were toasted. Ours was a western, "Cheers". Their visit to other tables was more boisterous. People would stand and loudly chorus "yaaaaaaammmmmmm seng!", being some sort of Chinese toast (bottoms up, cheers, whatever). The younger the group was, the more they'd pour brandy into the couple's glasses and "yam seng" the couple several times. This went on for 30+ tables, so you can imagine their state by the end.

One difference from our traditions is in gift giving. The wedding dinner is not an excuse to outfit the couple, since they've had two years to buy for their apartment. Rather the dinner is just a celebration. You're expected to give an ANG POW (red envelope) with enough money to cover the cost of your meal (S$30-40 each). Whatever you give, it had better be an even number (not always as easy a task as one might expect).

The next day I was a work and did a double take - the bride was at work! She didn't have enough vacation left in 1998, so their honeymoon, which she assured me they would take, was delayed for a few days. Of course, if you can wait for 2-3 years for a flat, I guess you can wait for a couple of days for the honeymoon.