To decorate their flat for the wedding, Ms Chia Sin Nee and Mr Larry Ho spent less than $50 on fairy lights and paper to make bunting. PHOTO: IVAN TAN
Visitors to the Marina Barrage last month might have spied a crane lifting a large white tent onto its spiralling green roof.
Except, this was not just any tent, but the venue for a big wedding bash with a panoramic view of the city skyline.
Investment analyst Debbie Soon, 25, fell in love with the windy, sprawling turf atop the Marina Barrage. She and her 32-year-old husband, who also works in the finance industry, decided it was where they would host their dinner party after their church wedding in the morning.
Ms Soon says: "Your wedding is the one time in your life when you can justify such an expense to throw a party."
The couple approached logistics company Lian Yick Metal Tents to help them with the set-up, received the relevant clearances from the Civil Defence Force, the police and the Public Utilities Board and put together a wedding dinner bearing personal touches and dotted with colourful lanterns. The total cost was about $50,000.
Ms Soon says they saved enough for the wedding and did not bust their budget. The money from red packets they received also helped defray about 60 per cent of the cost.
But $50,000 is barely half the amount that some couples spend on their nuptials.
Mr Mark Foo and Ms Stephanie Sim releasing 50 butterflies, bought for $5 each. PHOTO: REVELATION CREATIVE HOUSE
Throwing weddings in hotel ballrooms is the norm. For 300 guests, which is a common turnout, this works out to 30 tables costing about $1,500 each at a four- to five-star hotel. Booking a wedding venue alone works out to about $50,000, without factoring in the costs of outfits, alcohol and photography, among other things.
Singapore's rising affluence means weddings today are no longer the modest affairs they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Young couples tying the knot may have more money to spend now, but counsellors and planners note that peer influence and family expectations also contribute to the growing trend of "one-of-a-kind" weddings. Many couples hardly blink at spending a sum equivalent to the annual salary of some workers on their wedding.
Dr Joel Yang, head of the master of counselling programme at SIM University's School of Human Development and Social Services, believes both traditions and modern practices have conflated to produce the current wedding trends seen here.
He says: "Traditional customs view marriage as a symbol of status, focused on the collective family rather than both individuals. This adds pressure in the way of reluctance to disappoint one's parents and family by having too humble a wedding."
At the same time, expensive weddings are glorified in popular media, bridal magazines and television shows, he adds.
"The simple 'this is your day' tagline so deeply, and reliably, influences consumer behaviour and drives couples to splurge on their weddings," he says. "Being a progressive yet conservative nation, we are influenced by both these traditional and collectivist, as well as modern and individualist, concepts, which fuel extravagant weddings."
Today, even straightforward, no-frills weddings that adhere to tradition can set a couple back by tens of thousands of dollars. The wedding becomes a family affair and the parents of the couple often chip in to help soften the financial blow.
PHOTO: BLISS PHOTO+CINEMA
Ms Suniartie Sudyono (above), 28, who got married in September, enjoyed the communal feel of her traditional void deck wedding. She works as a public officer in the Civil Service College's international department.
She and her husband, Mr Azrulnizam Shah Sohaimi, 29, who is the national football team's manager, had about 1,500 guests at their wedding held in a void deck and a community centre. They had two concurrent receptions, one for the bride's friends and family, and another for the groom's. A week later, they held a lunch for their friends at the Crowne Plaza hotel.
Ms Suniartie, her husband and her parents split the $70,000 bill for the void deck wedding and hotel reception. Catering food for more than 1,000 visitors, including neighbours, colleagues and friends from school, made up a large chunk of the costs.
She had six outfits, including a white wedding gown and a classic baju kurung.
Their celebration included a silat presentation and colourful processions, as well as several elegant platforms, known as pelamin, on which the bride and groom would sit. She found it very meaningful that they stuck to tradition.
"I don't think ours was that elaborate," she says, "but both of us are the eldest child in our families so, understandably, our parents were okay with spending a bit more."
With her own savings as well as her parents' help, she says she did not incur debt for the wedding.
While a wedding is rarely the sole cause of financial woes, it can be a strong contributing factor.
Ms Tan Huey Min, general manager of Credit Counselling Singapore, says her organisation has seen clients who reveal that their wedding spending contributed to their debt.
She cites the example of a woman in her 20s whom she met several years ago.
"She told me, 'It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing and being the bride, you're always the focus'," she recalls. "They had their wedding in a hotel but, unfortunately, they came from a humble background and the hongbao money collected was not enough to pay for the banquet. So debt was incurred and they didn't have savings. She also went for a honeymoon, so that led to another debt."
Such a situation is not uncommon, she adds. "People either haven't saved enough or what they've saved is not enough for the type of wedding they want. Sometimes, they might count on the hongbao money to take care of their expenses, but unfortunately it doesn't."
Focus on the Family Singapore is one of the charities here that provide marriage counselling for engaged couples and newlyweds.
Its counselling manager, Ms Tan Soh Hiang, says the charity sometimes sees male clients who feel compelled to accede to the requests or demands of their bride and her family and have to take out a loan as a result.
"Generally, we Asians are still concerned about the 'face' issue. Parents or the bride want to be able to look good in front of their friends and relatives and not be outdone by other weddings in the clan," she says.
Couples who opt to break with tradition and hold a smaller ceremony often have a tough time getting their parents' approval, but several newlyweds say it can be done.
PHOTO: REFLEXIONS PHOTOGRAPHY
Ms Uma Ramakrishnan (above), who married her husband, Mr Jacob Jonathan, in August last year, says her parents "took a bit of convincing" to come round to the idea of an intimate, 30-person vintage-style ceremony she envisioned at bakery-cafe Carpenter & Cook in Upper Bukit Timah.
"My parents wanted to invite everyone they knew, but after we talked to them, they got quite excited about our idea. It was quite an eclectic mix with my friends all dressing to the vintage theme and my family all decked out in saris," she recalls.
The couple, both 27-year-old teachers, limited their guest list to their family and bridesmaids and groomsmen, who are friends they have known since secondary school.
The couple spent just under $1,600 on the entire wedding, including the venue, food, clothing and photography.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOSHUA SYMONS
Similarly, Mr Joshua Symons, 37, and Ms Sharon Han, 31 (above), opted for a casual ceremony with a Hawaiian theme at the Sunset Bay Garden Bistro in East Coast Park three weeks ago. While they had aimed to keep their guest list to under 50, it soon expanded to 100. But they maintained the relaxed feel they wanted by encouraging guests to turn up in Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.
Ms Han, a senior programming executive, wore a simple white gown while Mr Symons donned a Hawaiian shirt.
"We were getting our new flat, so rather than do a grand wedding dinner with 25 tables and then still have to pay for a house and renovation, we decided to set a budget and have a small party," says Mr Symons, a business development manager.
The couple spent about $4,500 on the food, decoration, photography and wedding gown, with some friends providing these services at discounted rates.
The atmosphere was "awesome", says Mr Symons. "Everyone was comfortable and had a good time. It wasn't too pompous but was laid-back."
PHOTO: CAILI GOH
Ms Karen Wai, 28, and Mr Jean Paolo Ty, 30 (above), both film-makers, also tried to manage the cost of their wedding by setting a budget of $10,000, which included the cost of their outfits and wedding rings.
They tied the knot in July last year at Fort Canning Park, a venue that did not need much decorating.
They bought all their decorations from Daiso, a chain store where all items cost $2 or less, turning rope and mason jars into hanging lamps. And for their wet-weather plan, they bought umbrellas from Daiso for their guests instead of renting a tent. Luckily, that plan did not have to be activated.
"Even though it was all very simple, everything turned out well," says Ms Wai. "A small wedding celebration, surrounded by our closest family and friends, is more than enough for us. Also, as a young couple, we wanted to use our money wisely, and this meant saving for our new home."
The bid to make their big day a special one can drive up the costs.
Wedding consultants interviewed say some couples are driven by the desire to make their wedding stand out from the ones they have attended.
Ms Caroline Tan-Reed, founder of wedding planning service The Wedding Stylist who helps with about 20 weddings a year, says some of her clients spend up to $50,000 on floral decorations.
There are also those who turn to overseas destinations, such as Bali, Phuket or the Maldives, to make their wedding stand out. Even though fewer guests fly abroad for these weddings, planning something in the azure waters of the Maldives can start from about $60,000.
Retiree Lawrence Loh, 64, whose son is getting married next year, feels that young couples can sometimes get carried away when planning their nuptials. He expects he will have to contribute a sum to his son's wedding at some point.
His future daughter-in-law has set her heart on a $10,000 wedding gown. Most five-star hotels require a minimum of 40 tables and the cheapest package is $1,488 a table before service charge and GST. Videography and photography services cost $11,000.
Mr Loh says: "After the wedding, nobody really cares what happened. Who cares whether it was a beautiful wedding or otherwise? How often will the wedding video and photographs be viewed?
"What is truly important is how the couple live out their marriage vows. An expensive wedding does not guarantee this."
This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on November 10, 2013. Read the full article on The Straits Times.com here. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.