Singapore love stories: 'Love at first sight', but they dated in secret for years

Rohim (left) and Alifa had to date on the sly because of her conservative parents.

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, we bring you a series about love stories of people living in Singapore.

By Arti Mulchand, Contributor

It was during Ramadan in 1985 that a young Muslim man came calling at the Ismail home in Novena. He was selling Hari Raya cards to raise funds.

Unknown to the “very conservative” family within, Abdul Rohim Sarip, then a second-year law student at the National University of Singapore, had more than charity on his mind. He needed an excuse to see their youngest daughter Alifa Ismail.

Rohim, now 55 and the co-founder of a law firm, had met the then first-year Arts and Social Sciences student during a freshman camp organised by the NUS Muslim Society. It was “love at first sight”, he remembers. The feeling was mutual. By the time he went over to compliment her “bob” hairdo, she was already hooked.

“(His eyes) were light brown under the sun. During the discussions, he spoke so much (but) I was just staring at his eyes,” laughs Alifa, now 51 and a secondary school teacher. At the end of the three-day camp, he offered to accompany her home.

“I was not used to that kind of attention, so I refused. He walked me to the bus stop anyway, and took the same bus.”

They chatted throughout the bus ride from Clementi to Toa Payoh, where she would change buses for her home in Novena. He called her that night, and told her he was coming around the next day.

Because Alifa’s family was conservative, they had to keep their relationship on the quiet, but her good friends helped create opportunities for them to be with each other.

On their first Valentine’s Day, the young Romeo left five red roses on the front gate of her home. Her father found them early that morning on his way to the mosque and, suspicious of their origin and intent, promptly threw them away.

“Rohim called in the morning to ask about them, and I found them in the flowerpot next to the dustbin outside the house,” Alifa recalls.

It was only two years later, when Alifa invited Rohim to her elder sister’s wedding, that her family copped on to what had been brewing.

As tradition dictated, his parents proposed to hers, and the wedding was set for June 1990.

It coincided with the FIFA World Cup, and while Alifa knew her husband-to-be liked soccer, she was completely unaware of the full extent of his fandom until the first night of their honeymoon, when she was awoken at 2am by flickering lights.

“He had covered the television in the room with a blanket, and was sitting under it watching the match,” she remembers.

He still made sure she had a time to remember though. They stayed in a traditional Iban longhouse, shot a blowpipe, and had dinner with a headman sitting under a basket of beheaded skulls.

It was what Alifa wanted and “it was then that I realised he would put up with anything for me,” she says.

Romance is still very much alive for the couple after 27 years of marriage.

They spent the first three years of their marriage living at her parents’ home, because there was more room, and it was there that they had their son in 1992. The following year, they moved into their own home in Toa Payoh, and they had two daughters, in 1996 and 1998.

The ambitious young lawyer’s career also took off. Soon after their son was born, Rohim co-founded A Rohim Noor Lila & Partners, with a focus on family law. He served two terms – in 2009 and 2011 – as President of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Over the last decade, he has been deeply involved in volunteer work. Yet, his wife remains sharply in focus, and romance has never taken a backseat, says Alifa. He sends her massive bouquets of roses on Hari Raya, her birthday and Valentine’s Day, fulfilled her wish to go to Mecca before her 40th birthday, and threw her a surprise birthday on a yacht for her 50th.

“He even sends me breakfast on my busy mornings at work. Yesterday it was laksa, today it is nasi lemak…. He knows when I need coffee and meets me with a kopi kao in hand. My son is (often) amazed at our telepathy,” she says.

And they’ve always found time to grab lunch or tea, calling on grandparents and their helper to watch the kids so they get some alone time.

It has been a journey of constant discovery. A trip to Port Dickson in 2014, during which they recorded their favourite duet, for example, led to the realisation that they were “devoid of singing talent”, Alifa recalls with a laugh. “We have not dared to watch the video or karaoke again.”

Asked what keeps them going, Rohim, ever the romantic, rewinds back to their early days, and a bag that Alifa sometimes carried when the children were young. “The bag said: It’s love.”

Other Singapore love stories:

First came marriage, then came love

Winning at more than online gaming

She thought he was gay, but they still ended up together

Okay, Cupid, give me what you’ve got

If music be the food of love, play on

Mr Right was a ‘right swipe’ away