To marry Rita Ahmad (right), the love of his life, Llewelyn Ridhwan Teng (left) got circumcised and converted to Islam. This journey was fraught with challenges. Among other things, he had to endure the wrath of his mother.
This is an abridged version of a RICE Media article which was written in partnership with the National Heritage Board. It was originally published in August 2020 as a companion piece to NSFTV's short, fictional film on the challenges faced by interracial couples in pre-independence Singapore.
Rita Ahmad, 47, was queuing for food at an eatery in Pasir Ris when a Chinese boy in his 20s approached her and asked shyly: “Is the Chinese man sitting there your husband?”
Befuddled, Rita, who was dining with her spouse Llewelyn Ridhwan Teng, 52, nodded.
“Can I ask how his parents accepted you?” he continued.
Rita ventured: “Your girlfriend Malay ah?”
“Yes, and my parents cannot accept it,” the boy answered. F
or the briefest moment, Rita was transported back to the 1990s. She saw a younger version of her husband, perplexed and troubled by the challenges brought about by their interracial coupling.
Not much has changed in Singapore since she started dating Llewelyn, then a Roman Catholic, in 1994, she thought.
The pair had met two years before, having been posted to the same work team at SATS, a catering service provider at Changi Airport. Due to their religious differences, they did not entertain the idea of getting together.
Chuckling, Llewelyn said: “(But) when you work hand in hand with your team 10 to 12 hours a day, you don’t really have a social life outside the airport so you can’t help but get close to the people you work with.”
Their love story began with Rita receiving notes from a secret admirer. One, dated 22 January 1994, read: “Dearest Rita, I miss you so much that my heart aches! Secret Admirer”.
Another came attached to a drink. It said: “To my dearest Rita, enjoy the drink and food of ‘l❤️ve’! Wz lots and lots of love, guess who?”,
“I was so naïve,” Rita giggled. “I told Llewelyn someone was into me. He said he’d help me check who the person was. He was such a good actor.”
Apprehension, Conflict and Tension
Their relationship hit a major bump in the road when Llewelyn’s mum found out that he was courting a Malay Muslim. “She was furious. There was a lot of disapproval, anger and tension at home,” he said. “She knew that if I got married to Rita, I would have to convert.”
His mother went out of her way to express her unhappiness and attempted to drive a wedge between the couple. Whenever they called each other, she would pick up the other phone in the house and place its receiver at the radio. Rita was unable to hear him clearly so he had to use a public phone.
On the few occasions Rita visited Llewelyn at home, his mother acted oblivious to her presence.
Llewelyn’s mum also mobilised his family against him. He said: “I believe that my younger brother and sister may have been more accepting of Rita. But they could see how unhappy I had made my mum so they backed her… and tried to knock some sense into me,” said Llewelyn.
Despite the obstacles placed in their way, the couple said they bear no grudges. Rita said: “I think his mother was thinking ahead and wanting the best for her son. (She wanted to make) sure we were serious (about each other). As parents now, Llewelyn and I understand (where she was coming from).”
Llewelyn’s mother had a change of heart about two years into their dating life. In 1996, when Llewelyn’s family moved to Tampines, one of the first things she did was to invite Rita over for a house tour.
Soon after, the couple married. By this time, Llewelyn had converted to Islam.
Such interracial and interreligious unions were uncommon in the 1990s. The statistics say it all.
In 1994, only 8.8% of all marriages in Singapore were between individuals of different races. In 1984, the figure stood at just 6.3%.
What gives? By and large, who we end up with still tends to be greatly influenced by social norms and traditions within our own ethnic and cultural spheres.
Sociologists Riaz Hasan and Geoffrey Benjamin expand on this theory in their journal article Ethnic Outmarriage Rates in Singapore: The Influence of Traditional Socio-Cultural Organization. They argue that marriage for a Chinese man tends to be “circumscribed by family control” due to the patrilineal culture. This is why they tend to marry within their race compared with their female counterparts who are five times more likely to marry outside of it.
Meanwhile, Indians “expend much effort in ensuring that their daughters marry properly” because “in Hindu-Indian belief… it is maternity… that determines a person’s ritual (and hence social) standing.”1
The authors of the paper note however that: “Islamic allegiance in itself has an overriding and equalising effect” which explains the higher incidence of interracial marriages between Indian Muslims and Malay Muslims.
Acceptance, Compromise and Love
Rita’s relationship with Llewelyn’s mother continued to blossom.
Dabbing her eyes with tissue as she teared, Rita recounted how her mother-in-law made an effort to tell her she looked beautiful on the day of her Malay wedding. The make-up artist was not the best, Rita shared. “My mother-in-law knocked on my door and told me, ‘Whatever it is, you still look pretty’.”
She would go on to be incredibly supportive of the couple, helping them to house hunt for instance. Every Chinese New Year, the family also prepares separate dishes to accommodate their family unit. Eventually, Llewelyn’s mother stopped cooking pork at home, choosing only to consume the meat as a dine-out option.
Rita gushed that her mother-in-law is her best friend now.
What caused Llewelyn’s mum to change her attitude towards their interracial relationship?
Llewelyn said he was simply focused on being with Rita. “I didn’t really try to convince my family much. Rita was just another human being, you know? Rita was just a woman whom I wanted to marry someday. After two years of courtship, my mum realised I was not going to let this girl go. So she accepted it.”
Are interracial marriages more common today?
In 2018, such unions comprised 22.4% of all marriages in Singapore, a significant three-fold jump from Rita and Llewelyn’s courtship days, and four times more than in 1965, when Singapore first gained independence.
Llewelyn said: “I suppose our society is now more tolerant of such marriages”, adding that there are other mixed marriages on his side of his family.
Rita chimed in: “Society is more open to mixed marriages now. One of my cousins followed in my footsteps and married a Chinese man.”
Sociologists believe that marital assimilation signals the final breakdown of social barriers between groups. If so, the growing number of such unions certainly bodes well for Singapore’s multicultural fabric.
“Can I ask how his parents accepted you?” the boy asked Rita as they stood in line for food in Pasir Ris.They may not accept your relationship at first, Rita replied. “What you have to do is show them that you’re serious about it, that you will take responsibility, that you love the person, and respect their religion.”