Elderly couple cements 'slow ember' love, marry in hospital after 10-year romance

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Tom Iljas, 81, and Liong May Swan, 78 exchanging vows at a clinic in Alexandra Hospital on Saturda, 28 March 2020. PHOTO: Kong Chong Yew

SINGAPORE — The distance from Singapore to Sweden, the aftermath of a debilitating stroke and even the coronavirus could not keep them apart.

On Saturday morning (28 March), Swedish national Tom Iljas, 81, and Singaporean writer Liong May Swan, 78, were wed at a clinic in Alexandra Hospital after a decade-long romance that has seen the couple traverse many kilometres to see each other over the years. The ceremony was presided by Reverend Daniel Lee Kok-Peng and witnessed by fewer than 10 people, in line with social distancing measures.

“Now, our relationship has been cemented as husband and wife. I hope that we will be together for eternity,” said Iljas in Bahasa Indonesia as the couple exchanged vows. Born in Jakarta, the retiree previously worked in the logistics industry and like his new bride, is a widower and has adult children.

In response, Liong said, “To me, the word ‘fall in love’ is overrated, but love is more profound and everlasting. Love means a sense of commitment. Based on this, I will do my best to fulfil all these promises that I have made you today. Thank you very much for caring for me.” Liong, a former translator at the Ministry of Defence, has written historical fiction novels set in Southeast Asia.

Wedding plans thwarted

The couple, who first met in an online community 10 years ago, had planned to hold a restaurant ceremony at Dempsey Hill earlier this month. However, just days before, Liong suffered a stroke on 16 March. In addition, social distancing measures imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19 meant a restaurant ceremony was no longer possible.

But their plans would not be deterred. The couple requested that their solemnisation be held at Alexandra Hospital, where Liong is currently warded. She has been there since Wednesday, when she was transferred from National University Hospital.

Hospital authorities obliged, with staff planning and organising the ceremony within three days and opening one of the clinics – which are closed on Saturdays – specially for the couple.

Asked by reporters why they had decided to tie the knot, Iljas, who has three children and six grandchildren, said he had done so for Liong’s sake. “I share the Swedish value, that when a couple love each other, they don’t need the certificate to legitimise that. But not May Swan.”

Liong, who has one son, added, “I am more conventional. To me, getting officially married is very important if you want to live together. Being Singaporean, I do have this kiasu syndrome. I want it to be legalised.”

Their plans were also accelerated by Liong’s deteriorating health – Iljas wanted to stay by her side to care for her instead of letting her live on her own. He added that a long-distance relationship was “very tiresome” and expensive.

‘A slow ember kind of thing’

Tom Iljas and Liong May Swan in Amsteradm in 2014, where they met in person for the first time. PHOTO: Alexandra Hospital

Asked how their romance had blossomed, Liong replied, “It was a slow ember kind of thing. It came to a realisation that the other person is the one that you want to spend the rest of your life with.”

Iljas recalled that they had a lot of common interests, particularly as they discussed her books. After talking online for three years, they finally decided to meet during a book launch in Amsterdam. Meeting in Frankfurt before driving to the Dutch capital, the couple then travelled all over Europe, to cities such as Barcelona and Paris.

Over the years, the couple have visited each other many times, before finally deciding to get married earlier this year. Liong now hopes to recover enough so that she can begin a new life in Sweden with Iljas.

She also had some advice for the younger generation, “If you think you have found the right person, you don’t have to wait until you reach our age to tie the knot. There’s no one good reason to prolong a good decision of a lifetime.”