A couple of weeks ago, over our seventh round of beer, my friends and I somehow ended up trying to outdo one another by listing places that looked nice on the outside but whose interior was absolute shit.
Our answers were both varied and hilarious.
Charles, the resident philistine in our group suggested Jewel Changi. I loudly and proudly answered women’s bathroom (don’t ask me how I know this). But our hearty laughter turned to confused silence when Jack—the only married gentleman in our rag-tag bunch of bros—shared his answer: the Registry of Marriages (ROM).
“It looks like a fucking polyclinc!” he said, swaying from side to side.
Everyone dismissed him, but over the next few days, I just couldn’t understand why he said what he said.
Was there any truth to it?
On a Thursday morning, I find myself at ROM, looking at plastic chairs arranged in neat little rows, all of which have been angled towards three TV screens that hang from the ceiling.
Surveying those present, I notice couples in tee shirts, shorts and flip-flops. Others are in suits and office dresses, fiddling with phones and laptops.
Suddenly, a digital bell tolls overhead, breaking the monotony of the hushed early morning chatter, and indicating that business has officially begun. At once, everyone pauses what they’re doing for a moment to stare at the screens above us, hoping the number that flashes matches the one on our registration slip.
In other words, this is exactly like how I’d expect a polyclinic to be.
Because most of us only know the building by its exterior, via Channel 8 dramas of old—when a jealous ex-girlfriend or jilted lover tries to crash the party—our assumption of what it’s like inside is informed only by what we think love should look like.
The reality, however, is extremely sobering.
Taking a seat in the corner of the room, what strikes me most is how devoid of romance the entire place is. If you have images of grandeur in your head, forget them. The ROM is … really just a waiting room.
Beyond the aforementioned TV screens that flicker with queue numbers is a huge wall of patterned glass separating the waiting area from seven counters. If you’ve ever been to collect a passport at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority then you’ll know what I mean—it’s exactly like that, only less crowded and more cramped.
To truly understand what I mean, allow me to tell you the story of the couple a few seats to my left. Both of them look to be in their late 20s, and both are dressed rather simply: a black polo shirt and jeans for him and a white dress with flower motifs for her.
They’re seated side by side but they could just as well be worlds apart. Hell, the longer I observe them, the more it seems like the absence of one wouldn’t even be noticed by the other.
Feigning a trip to the washroom for an excuse to walk past the couple, I spy him playing a game on his iPhone while she mindlessly thumbs through her Instagram feed. When I pass them again 10 minutes later, it’s the same story.
They’re both clearly bored, but of waiting or each other I can’t quite tell. Maybe the longer a couple stays married, the more the relationship becomes about acceptance than passion.
A scenario like this isn’t in itself something noteworthy (similar situations play out all the time in homes and cafés all around the country), but the absence of enthusiasm, or even just loving interaction is concerning considering the occasion.
To them, this might be “comfortable silence”. But to a casual observer, they look like two strangers.
I start talking to myself: Does every gap of silence need to be filled? How comfortable is too comfortable? Will we eventually get so used to someone, to the point where there’s nothing left to say to each other anymore?
Before I can work out satisfactory answers, the bell chimes and they disappear behind the glass.
Based on his three-piece suit, the laptop he’s typing furiously on, and how immaculately put together he is, I deduce that he’s probably some high-level exec in either an investment bank or law firm—you know the type.
He answers a phone call, and during the animated conversation that follows, his fiancée arrives. An attractive lady in a pastel knee-length dress, she beams at her husband-to-be as soon as she lays eyes on him. He, however, only manages a half-smile in response. He’s much too absorbed in that phone call and soon, his brow furrows again.
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of unbridled emotion, I see the expression on her face change. She’s crestfallen, but she steels herself remarkably quickly—at a speed one only achieves through practice.
Taking her seat, she looks around at everyone else. For a brief moment, our eyes meet from across the room and I quickly look away. Part of me feels ashamed for witnessing a moment she probably wanted to keep private.
From the perspective of an ignorant observer, I couldn’t help feeling the frustration of watching supposed love-birds not giving a shit about the occasion.
But then something clicks. I realise that everything only seems negative because I had been told what a depressing place ROM is supposed to be.
I had forgotten that that love looks, and of course, feels different to different people.
Moving closer to the glass, I see Mr high-level-exec’s left hand reach for his fiancé’s right under the table, and their fingers eventually interlock. She seems slightly taken aback but soon, I see her thumb gently caress the back of his palm. Turning to her, he holds her gaze for a moment and smiles. Unbeknownst to either of them, I do too.
When the entire process ends about 10 minutes later, I see him lean into her and say something that results in a beaming smile that graces her face again. I’m too far away to overhear their conversation, but maybe he just apologised for shrugging her off earlier, and has just promised to work on how he treats her; perhaps he’s changed his mind about heading back to the office and wants to just spend the rest of the day with his fiancé; maybe he’s told her that she is and will always be, the most important part of his life.
They leave with silly grins plastered across their faces.
In this way, the more attention I pay to the couples leaving, the more I realise that all of them do the same. Not a single couple leaves the ROM unhappy. Earlier, I even saw Mr and Mrs iPhone sharing a tender embrace, mobile devices nowhere to be found.
Elsewhere in the waiting room, I start noticing little acts of love as well, some more obvious than others. For instance, other than the couples who live in a world made for two, there’s a man who crosses his arms and appears to have fallen asleep. But whenever his fiancé’s runny nose acts up though, he reaches deep into his pocket to retrieve tissues for her.
Over and over I watch him do this, and each time, my heart lightens.
I’m willing to bet you everything that one of those pictures will eventually find its way onto Instagram. And even though I hate when people share every aspect of their lives on social media, today, it’s okay.
Today, I’m not going to rain on their parade because they fully deserve the happiness they feel. In fact, I should be thanking them since seeing everyone—young and old—so happy makes my own cold, dead heart smile.
The place is crazy efficient, and since everyone spends such a short time there, you hardly see any outward displays of affection that’ll lead you to believe that Singaporeans are and can be romantic. Instead, you’ll just feel disappointed by the fact that everything looks so damn clinical.
In essence, the ROM is just one big waiting room, mechanical and efficient—as what you’d expect from a government agency. By that logic, a marriage certificate is also just a laminated piece of paper. But we all know there’s a lot more to it.
Sitting there in the waiting room, I realise that the ROM doesn’t look like anything. Yet its basic-ness is its charm. It’s a perfect metaphor for what love is really about.
The ROM is not flashy. There are no frills; no loud declarations of romance. But isn’t that exactly what love is when all the glitz and glamour is stripped away?
Lest we forget, a marriage is entirely different from a wedding ceremony. Where one tends to be a lavish display of wealth and extravagance, the other is much humbler in nature, done for no one other than the two parties involved.
It’s not easy and requires constant work. But if done right, lasts a lifetime.
Underneath it all, love is an intense feeling of deep affection between two people, regardless of race, language, religion, and gender—nothing more, nothing less. It’s what you choose to make of it, and when it’s just the two of you (souls laid bare and sans distractions), you’re forced to examine what your relationship is really about.
The ROM is a perfect reminder of that.