Love is all aroundThree couples, three different love stories. In this Valentine's Day special, we find out how these men and women in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) keep their marriages strong amid demanding military jobs.
// Story Teo Jing Ting
// PHOTOS Kenneth Lin, Chai Sian Liang & courtesy of interviewees
Not about first impressions
"Aiyoh, the photographer said to face each other lah," said Major (MAJ) Charlene Tan as she turned her husband's chin towards her during the PIONEER photoshoot.
"See, after so many years still so bossy," retorted MAJ Dylan Kok.
It was precisely this personality trait that put him off when they first met in Officer Cadet School (OCS) in 2005. Despite being in the same platoon, they did not have a good first impression of each other — he found her bossy while she thought he was childish.
But life had other plans and they reconnected at a course four years later. Attraction blossomed and they were married in 2014.
Today, the Koks are adjusting to their newborn son who was born in early-2019.
Dealing with separation
As officers in the Republic of Singapore Navy, MAJ Kok and MAJ Tan, both 32, often have to deal with being apart from each other. During the early stages of their relationship, they were assigned to separate ships and would often be deployed at different timings.
The challenge grew after they got married. Two days after their wedding in 2014, MAJ Kok had to leave for Australia for Exercise Trident, a joint exercise between the SAF and Australian Defence Force.
"I drove him from the hotel to the airport with my wedding gown in the car, dropped him off and ran all the errands alone. I was feeling really sorry for myself!" recalled MAJ Tan with a laugh.
After returning in early December, MAJ Kok was deployed for another 14 days to take part in the search-and-rescue mission for the ill-fated aircraft QZ8501. Coincidentally, MAJ Tan was also deployed on a mission on New Year's eve. The newly-weds were apart for two months.
That was not the longest time they were away from each other. Their record was six months in 2016, with MAJ Tan participating in a counter-piracy mission in Bahrain and MAJ Kok going for back-to-back exercises such as Exercise Trident and the International Fleet Review in New Zealand.
The couple may have gotten used to each other's absence over the years but they admitted that it has never been easy to say good-bye. While they have their own social circles and hobbies, separation still takes a toll, especially on special occasions.
"It helps that we have a bunch of close friends in the Navy, so whenever one of us is deployed, they make the effort to keep us company. That's part of the Navy family spirit," said MAJ Kok, a staff officer in the operations planning branch of the Naval Operations Department.
When they are together, they maximise every minute. Spontaneity is key to their relationship, and the adventure-loving couple often takes short trips to nearby countries. Despite the demanding nature of their jobs, they have no regrets joining the Republic of Singapore Navy.
Explained MAJ Tan, a staff officer in the force plans branch of the Naval Plans Department: "Our jobs are critical in safeguarding our country's defence and we understand what it entails. It’s something that we live with and work around most of the time."
When asked about the sweetest things they have done for each other, MAJ Tan excitedly recounted her proposal.
They were both on separate ships then and MAJ Kok had requested her superior to give her some time off. A colleague drove MAJ Tan home, where she found a dress with instructions for her to wear it. She then embarked on a treasure hunt with her close friends in Sentosa before entering the now-defunct Underwater World where MAJ Kok proposed using placards from inside the tank.
"I was surprised that he managed to pull it off without my knowledge and I was bawling my eyes out," laughed MAJ Tan.
For MAJ Kok, it was a surprise birthday trip for his 26th. When MAJ Kok came home, his luggage had been packed and he was whisked off to the airport. The next thing he knew, he was on a plane to Bali to enjoy a vacation with her.
These surprises may be few and far in between, but the Koks know that sustaining a marriage takes effort. Now that they have a child, it is even more crucial to maintain that balance among work, family and private time.
"Our jobs may be demanding, but we need to make that effort to connect and make each other feel loved," said MAJ Kok.
"And of course, being spontaneous definitely helps!"
Love at first sight
Military Expert (ME) 3 Sanhti Thanapal was upset. Birthdays meant a lot to her, but her husband had not done anything special for her milestone 40th.
Little did she know she would be whisked off the next day for a surprise party with more than 60 of her family and closest friends. The chalet was beautifully decorated; her cake was in the colours of her favourite superhero — Wonder Woman — and there was even a deejay.
"I was so touched and happy; I took so many photos and videos!" said the 41-year-old Air Operations and Systems Expert (AOSX) from the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) Air Force Training Command.
It was all part of her husband's grand plan — ME3 Ganisen Subramaniam wanted to throw his wife a celebration she would never forget.
"I deliberately did it a day after her birthday so that she would not suspect anything," said the 44-year-old with a chuckle.
Keeping the spark alive
It may have been 20 years, but the couple keeps their marriage strong with such sweet gestures.
For instance, for ME3 Ganisen's 35th birthday, ME3 Sanhti bought him a camera she knew he had been eyeing for a long time. And for Valentine's Day one year, he made short videos which she posted on Facebook.
"I spend 10 minutes doing the video and she's in a good mood for a long time. Very high ROI (return on investment)," said ME3 Ganisen, who is adept at video editing.
It was love at first sight when ME3 Ganisen first set eyes on his now-wife at a basic air operations specialist course in 1996.
They got married two years later and had their first child, Marcus Kryshaan, in 2002.
Deconflicting their work schedules soon became more challenging. They were both working shifts, their weekends were frequently "burnt", and there were times they were recalled for exercises. When the children fell ill, ME3 Sanhti would feel guilty that she could not be around to care for them.
"It hurts at times when I'm not there for my kids but thankfully, I had the support of my in-laws, mum and helper — so I'm reassured to know that they are in good hands," said the mother-of-two, who worked as a base command post coordinator in Paya Lebar Air Base then.
RSAF airshows and open houses also became the family's hangout spots.
"Over the years, the children have seen so many static displays that they know all the hardware by heart!" said ME3 Ganisen, who is from 202 Squadron.
Proud to serve
For the couple's children, there is a special sense of pride when they hear their father's voice explaining the aerial manoeuvres to audiences. He has been the commentator for 13 airshows since 2009.
It's a role that ME3 Ganisen finds satisfaction in as he gets the chance to work with both air and ground crew, as well as be the voice of the RSAF.
Just like their passion for each other, the couple is still proud to do their part for Singapore even after 22 years on the job. He monitors air traffic while she trains full-time national servicemen and Regulars to operate air operations systems.
Said ME3 Sanhti: "Military life is not easy and no one expects it to be. What makes it worthwhile is that I am able to secure the future of my children and Singapore."
Friends to lovers
In 2007, Captain (CPT) Nuraishah Binte Ibrahim told her best friend that she would never date him.
"So I replied ‘When the time comes, I'll be the last boy you ever date,'" said Master Sergeant (MSG) Shahibul Kahfi with a laugh.
The 31-year-old kept his word and won her heart two years later.
They met as classmates in ITE College East studying sports management. They became close friends, going on trips together and were there for each other during break-ups.
After graduation, they lost touch. One of his friends, however, encouraged MSG Shahibul to call her. Love blossomed after one dinner date and they got married in October 2017.
Barely three months after their wedding, CPT Nuraishah went abroad for a one-year overseas posting.
"I decided to give it a shot as I'm still young," said the 30-year-old platoon trainer from an overseas training unit.
Incidentally, it was MSG Shahibul who encouraged her to take up the role. He had served in a similar posting as a vehicle spares in-charge for four years and thoroughly enjoyed his time.
"When you're overseas, you stay in camp and your colleagues are all that you have. It's the best way to build lifelong friendships and gain new experiences."
The newly-weds also did not miss each other much though they lived apart, even after marriage — her in camp and him at his parents' house.
Sharing about their days through WhatsApp and the occasional calls were sufficient. It also helped that the couple had a strong relationship and had been through a similar experience with MSG Shahibul's overseas stint.
Ironically, it was only when CPT Nuraishah returned last June to stay in their new home for 10 days did friction occur.
While she was away, MSG Shahibul had to settle most of their house renovations and furnishings. After six months, he had gotten used to living alone.
Having another person interfering in his habits was annoying and simple things like deciding on the right air-conditioning temperature would spark off minor squabbles.
But he soon realised his mistake and apologised to his wife.
"It's a learning journey every day. You think you know this person well but there are new things you discover about each other, especially when you start living together," said CPT Nuraishah with a laugh.
And when she left, MSG Shahibul started yearning for her presence as she brought a female touch to the house. For instance, she added scented candles around the house and plants in the bathroom.
"I told her that she shouldn't have come back, 'cos now I miss her a lot more," he said.
Long distance relationship
Now that her one-year term is almost up, CPT Nuraishah will be posted to 1st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.
And in a twist of fate, MSG Shahibul, who is currently reading supply chain management and international business in Nanyang Polytechnic under the SAF's Continuous Learning and Academic Sponsorship Scheme, will be going to Lithuania for a six-month-long exchange programme come September.
But it's nothing compared to what the couple have already gone through.
Ask what they enjoy about their jobs and you'll see a sparkle in their eyes. MSG Shahibul, who was formerly a wing quarter master in Officer Cadet School, explained that making a difference in the lives of others always made his day.
"When my soldiers ask me out for meals and I see how they've progressed, I know there's a purpose for me to be in their lives and that's meaningful."
It is the same reason for CPT Nuraishah, who had previously taken platoon commander appointments in Basic Military Training Centre overseeing an all-female company, and in 3rd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.
"It feels good that the girls still remember me as their m'am after so many years," she said.
"I enjoy witnessing positive attitude changes in my soldiers. The respect gained and seeing their maturity is something I wouldn't trade anything for."