People

Key to marriage: 'The plural of spouse is spice'

Mr and Mrs Yeo (above) with family and friends outside St Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on their wedding day on June 17, 1984. Mrs Yeo (below), a lawyer, has written a book on marriage.
Mr and Mrs Yeo (above) with family and friends outside St Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on their wedding day on June 17, 1984. PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG, JENNIFER YEO
Mr and Mrs Yeo (above) with family and friends outside St Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on their wedding day on June 17, 1984. Mrs Yeo (below), a lawyer, has written a book on marriage.
Mrs Yeo (above), a lawyer, has written a book on marriage.PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG, JENNIFER YEO

With your best friend by your side, life is exciting, says Mrs Jennifer Yeo

He was handsome, Cambridge-educated and a major in the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

But Jennifer Leong, who had just graduated from law school, was clear-eyed about what she needed to know from her new suitor.

On one of their initial dates, the 22-year-old asked Major George Yeo point-blank: "Are you single?"

The young man, who would later become her husband and a Cabinet minister, was a little taken aback at her directness.

Recalled Mrs Yeo, 58: "I just needed to ascertain whether he was engaged or married because you never know. As a law student, I had come across cases of people two-timing all the time."

Luckily, he was not fazed and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Yeos have now been married for 33 years, raised four children and had their fair share of ups and downs.

Having weathered the storms herself, and seen some nasty break-ups in her work as a family lawyer, Mrs Yeo wants to impart to young people the importance of being prepared for the most important relationship of one's life.

Her book on just that, I Want To Marry You But... A Marriage Guide For The Young Adult, is now in bookstores.

Through the book, Mrs Yeo explains the laws surrounding marriage, divorce and parenthood - so that readers are aware of their legal rights and responsibilities at various phases of their lives. It covers topics such as pre-marital disclosure for dating couples; property rights and financial obligations for married couples; abortion, adoption and the maintenance and division of assets in the event of a divorce.

She includes a checklist at the end of the book for couples to run through before they commit to marriage. "What I really want to know about you" includes questions such as "How much time will we spend with the in-laws?" and "If you or I were offered a job opportunity in another country, would you move?"

"Nowadays couples spend less time talking to one another because they are on their phones. When they date, it is about doing things together such as watching movies," said Mrs Yeo, chairman and founder of law firm Yeo-Leong & Peh.

"But getting to know each other on a deeper level is crucial so that issues don't crop up for them later that may threaten their marriage."

The book was her response to the rising number of divorces and more people choosing to call it quits relatively early in their marriages.

Besides making sure that Mr Yeo was single when they started hanging out, she also agonised over their differences in religion. He is Roman Catholic while she was Protestant.

Though she promised to raise their children as Catholics when they married in 1984, she converted to Catholicism only in 1997.

Two months later, their fourth and youngest child was diagnosed with childhood leukaemia, and doctors later said the 10-year-old had a less than 10 per cent chance of living. He is now 23.

"Having a common faith helped sustain us through challenging times and that is why couples need to be aware of all these, ideally before they get married," she said.

Mr Yeo, 62, a trained engineer, was a People's Action Party politician who served as minister in various portfolios from 1989 until 2011, when his team was defeated by the Workers' Party in Aljunied GRC.

On that Election Day, as the results rolled in, Mrs Yeo was an almost constant presence by his side. Mr Yeo retired from politics and is now based in Hong Kong as the chairman of a logistics company.

Mrs Yeo recalls encountering couples in the course of her legal work whose marriages were torn apart by stresses such as a deathly-sick child and weak finances.

Advice in the book, such as spotting issues like mental illness or menopause early, came about when she saw people divorcing because of the strain these things put on their marriage.

To balance the heaviness of the legal rules and terms, she peppers the prose with interesting court cases.

The international cases cited include that of a Cambodian man who literally sawed his marital home into two in the division of assets. He transported his half to his parents' property while his former wife continued to live in the half that was left standing.

Another case outlined how an American doctor had donated his kidney to his wife but later demanded it back when they divorced. The court said he could not get it back because donated organs are not considered marital assets.

Mrs Yeo said she hopes that the book does not come across as preachy, though she does make her stand clear on cohabitation and sex before marriage in the book.

Her own marriage, she admitted, was not free of differences in opinion, for example, in regard to bringing up the children. She was partial to setting expectations for school, whereas Mr Yeo felt she should not put pressure on their children.

"Over the years, we've learnt to align with each other so I hope the book will encourage young people to have long-lasting and successful marriages," said Mrs Yeo.

She joked: "The plural of spouse is spice... with your best friend by your side, life is exciting."

The book is being sold at $19.80 in major bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Key to marriage: 'The plural of spouse is spice''. Print Edition | Subscribe