Although marriage is a covenant between two people, many often forget that solemnisers are key to the process.
And for Pauline Sim, taking on the role of a wedding solemniser throughout the past 14 years has been, and continues to be, one of her life's greatest joys.
In 2005, the 56-year-old was first appointed a volunteer wedding solemniser by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
This happened a year after she started volunteering as a Family Life Champion with the People's Association, organising family-centric events and outreach in the community.
As a firm believer that strong couple bonding is the foundation of any blissful marriage, Sim also organises various couple programmes and workshops to help connect couples with similar interests.
After all, Sim and her husband are arguably themselves models for a strong marriage, having been together for 31 years and having raised two grownup daughters — the older a banker, and the younger a doctor.
Sim earnestly tells me that she keeps in contact with many of the couples whose weddings she has solemnised through platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, and enjoys seeing their marital lives evolve over the years.
In fact, so close she is to the couples she weds that she has been invited to the celebrations of their newborn children:
With one couple even reaching out to Sim to renew their wedding vows 10 years after they first got married:
From HDB flats to void decks to cable cars to McDonald's
Since she became a solemniser, Sim estimates that she has presided over about 80 weddings each year.
"Many of the couples I have solemnised are referrals from other satisfied couples who recommend me to their friends or family," she tells me.
And her experiences have been very varied. Sim has solemnised weddings at HDB flats, void decks, beaches, temples, churches, restaurants, yachts, cable cars, parks, hotels and even at McDonald's.
In particular, she loves that she is able to get to know couples from all walks of life and understand Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious culture better through these solemnisations.
Sim recounts to me with great fondness that she had gone to a HDB flat to conduct a solemnisation some years back when she was stopped at the door by the bride's mother.
Apparently, the bride's mother was against her daughter's marriage as the groom was not as well educated as her daughter, and was earning less than her.
"However, I had told the mother that preventing me from entering the flat would not stop her daughter from getting married (whether it would be done another day) and as such, she should support her daughter's decision."
"In the end, the bride's mother relented and opened the door for me."
On another occasion, Sim solemnised the wedding of James Michael Dorsey, an award-winning journalist and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
"It was extremely nerve-racking!" Sim exclaims as she relates the whole experience, chiefly because his official witnesses happened to be Ong Keng Yong and Bilahari Kausikan — both of whom, as you know, were well-known diplomats and Ambassadors-at-large at the time.
She's not even paid to do this full-time
The amount of dedication Sim has toward her solemniser work is even more astounding considering the fact that she does this on top of her part-time role as a HR director for a tech start up, and isn't paid for it.
Officers from the Registry of Marriage (ROM) works five weekdays and are paid a salary, while volunteers like her do not just weekdays but weekends as well and aren't paid, apart from an angpow the couple may give as a token of appreciation.
"One of the reasons why MSF appointed us as volunteer solemnisers is to cater to the needs of couples who are not getting married at the ROM but in the community," Sim says.
"You really need to have the passion in order to do this for the long run," Sim tells me, as she knows of some volunteer solemnisers who dictate charges to couples — a move she does not agree with.
Volunteer solemnisers who work regular full-time jobs frequently have to sacrifice their weekends to solemnise couples' weddings as well.
Perhaps as a result of this, not all volunteer solemnisers renew their contracts after each term — which usually lasts around two to three years — is up.
ROM sends out renewals of licenses based on who they wish to continue being solemnisers, while those selected by them can decide on whether or not to renew their licenses based on their own personal reasons.
"The good thing is that I have a very nice husband who will be my weekend chauffeur (to weddings). Some couples also give me a handwritten note out of appreciation so I'm very thankful for that too," Sim says.
On average, Sim receives a goodwill red packet of around S$80 per couple for a 20- to 30-minute solemnisation.
Weddings these days much more elaborate compared with in the past
When asked about her opinions on weddings these days, Sim remains open and candid about her observations as a wedding solemniser.
She notes, for instance, that weddings these days are much more elaborate compared with in the past.
While some couples from wealthier backgrounds may have lavish weddings to show off their status, some couples who are not as well-to-do may still hold their big days at similar scales just to keep up with the Joneses — something Sim finds to be unnecessary.
"Marriage is for a lifetime, not just for the moment. There's a lot more to a marriage than just a fancy wedding, and couples should focus on that," Sim says.
A six-star wedding & honeymoon that landed a couple in financial strain & their marriage on the rocks
One incident in particular, will forever be etched in Sim's mind.
"A few years ago, I solemnised the wedding of a young couple at the Shangri-La Hotel," Sim tells me.
Shortly after the wedding, the pair went on a lavish three-week honeymoon to Europe before moving into their marital home, a spanking new apartment in a condominium.
Their bliss was short-lived, however, when the couple started to face financial strain a few months later.
The loan for the condo and the huge sums they spent on their wedding and honeymoon were all catching up with them, over and above the stress of each of them being in new jobs.
And just four months after their wedding, the bride made a call to Sim to ask if she could refer her to a lawyer, citing a communication breakdown as the reason they wanted to split.
Dismayed, and in a bid to save the couple's marriage, Sim passed the wife the contact number of a marriage counsellor and told her that she could still come back to her for a lawyer's contact if that failed.
Thankfully, the pair reconciled when Sim bumped into them at a hawker centre yet another few months later.
Solemnising own daughters' marriages?
Now that Sim has amassed a wealth of experience as a volunteer wedding solemniser, she looks forward to solemnising her own daughters' marriages, hopefully in a few years' time.
"I don't want to rush them into getting married because it's more important to find the right person," Sim says.
When asked about her future plans, Sim adds that she hopes to be a wedding solemniser for as long as she can.
"I have been tremendously blessed throughout my life so I hope to give back to society through this."
Top photos courtesy of Pauline Sim