Ain't no river wide enoughRepublic of Singapore Navy (RSN) couple MAJ Leon Wai and MAJ Charisia Ong believe that love means supporting each other, even when sacrifices have to be made.
// Story by Benita Teo
// Photos by PTE Lionel Lee & courtesy of MAJ Wai
Major (MAJ) Leon Wai waves a hand puppet animatedly, drawing giggles from his 15-month-old daughter Hannah. His wife, MAJ Charisia Ong, holds the little girl up and they sing her a nursery rhyme.
But this isn't your usual family scene – MAJ Ong and Hannah are in Japan, where MAJ Ong is currently doing her post-graduate studies in Strategic Communications at the University of Tokyo. Meanwhile, MAJ Wai is alone in their home in Singapore. And this hour-long video call is all the time he has to see his daughter daily.
But MAJ Wai, Operations Officer of submarine RSS Swordsman and MAJ Ong, a Naval Combat Officer, have never looked back on their decision. To them, love means supporting your spouse in chasing their dreams, even if it means being separated temporarily and living in different countries.
Hi Charisia! How are you doing in Japan?
MAJ Ong: It's a lot more difficult than I expected! The main thing is the lack of support – in Singapore, my mum is just a phone call away. Now, I make sure I'm very disciplined in finishing my work during lesson time, so that I can give Hannah my full attention when she is home from nursery.
Was it a difficult decision to make, to live apart while you're pursuing your studies?
MAJ Ong: My two-year course began in September 2020, just weeks before Hannah was born. We were actually prepared for me to head to Japan with her as soon as travel restrictions were lifted. But in a way, the COVID-19 pandemic helped us spend more time together – we couldn't travel and my university allowed me to continue with online classes, so Hannah was able to spend her first year and first birthday in Singapore with our family.
MAJ Wai: We just went to Tokyo last November when Japan's borders opened, for Charisia to start attending physical lessons, and I spent about six weeks there helping them to settle down. Usually I'm quite stoic, but when I said goodbye to them at the airport, it was very difficult.
Sounds like parenthood has changed your relationship.
MAJ Wai: It's the tussle between the rational and emotional sides. One reason I opted to push through with work (instead of taking a leave of absence to go to Japan) is that I wanted to clock my operational tours while Hannah was young, since she wouldn't remember as much about me being away. But I didn't realise that after becoming a parent, I just want to be around my child as much as possible.
MAJ Ong: These daily video calls are mainly for Hannah to see her dad, so that she doesn't forget his face or voice! After all, the two of us can talk through text any time of the day.
Yet you still gave Charisia your support and blessing.
MAJ Wai: We both share a love for the Japanese language and culture – it's what drew us to each other when we first met in 2011 as junior officers on board missile corvette RSS Vigour. I know she's living her dream of studying in Japan. I only wish I could be experiencing it with her. Now, we're hoping the restrictions are lifted so that I can fly over easily to see them.
MAJ Ong: I'm living out half of our couple dream. Because of our shared love for Japan, he understood my decision. And that's why he was supportive, even if it meant separation from Hannah.
MAJ Wai: It's about talking things out and making sacrifices for each other. For instance, I was in Germany for almost a year in 2019, training for the launch of the new Invincible-class submarines in Singapore. Even though it was an organisational requirement –
MAJ Ong: (mock-dramatically) – I was heartbroken!
MAJ Wai: It's not easy for her to send her husband off. So, this time, it's my turn to support her.
What is it like being married to someone in the RSN?
MAJ Wai: There's a running joke about us in the Navy. She's qualified as a Tactical Coordination Officer on board the naval helicopters, so her speciality is hunting for enemy subs. And my job as a submariner is to hide from naval helicopters.
Even though we have yet to exercise together, whenever there is a training or exercise, the commanders will joke and say: "Eh, don't go and tell her our location!"
MAJ Ong: Or they'll tell me: "Tell him to be at this location so that we can find him!"
MAJ Wai: Having a spouse in the Navy means that we both understand the challenges that come with the job. Plus, she is more senior than I am in the Service, so hearing about her experiences helps inform my thinking. She's also a very good staffer, better than I am, so she offers a lot of advice.
MAJ Ong: For me, it helps that I have someone I trust explain the intricacies of anti-submarine warfare, because this is a subject that can't be easily grasped just from studying the theory and science behind it. Of course, if it's something he cannot talk about, he will let me know. It's good that our roles complement each other.
We heard that you have a very interesting proposal story!
MAJ Wai: I proposed to her in 2015 at the meridian line in Greenwich, London. I'd tricked her into going to London by telling her that I needed to access the National Archives for my undergraduate thesis.
MAJ Ong: And then you brought out a string of naval flags that I couldn't read! I wasn't as good at reading flags at that time! (laughs)
MAJ Wai: Actually, I made a typo! I wanted to spell out "Will you marry me", but it came out as "Will you marry em"!
MAJ Ong: The location was meaningful to us because most of our relationship had been long distance, like when I spent two years doing my Masters in the UK and US. We were always separated by a time difference. And he chose to propose at the place where time is calculated.
What do you appreciate the most about each other?
MAJ Wai: Women in the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) are a special breed – they are very independent. As a submariner, there are many things about my work I can't tell her, not even my deployment dates and duration, so she often has to live with that sort of uncertainty. It takes a special someone to make such sacrifices for the organisation, and she understands the pressures I face at work.
MAJ Ong: You know, the decision to become the wife of a submariner is not an easy one, even though I'm in the SAF and RSN. Because he believes in me and in us, he brings out a better version of me, than if I were to be doing this on my own. That's very important and special to me.