Ten years ago, I accompanied a 51-year-old Singaporean clerk on a matchmaking tour to Vietnam.
The bachelor found a wife in just four hours, and he had more than 50 prospective brides to choose from.
He picked a 26-year-old daughter of a farmer, and each knew only the barest facts about the other - age, occupation, marital history, the number of people at home and their hobbies.
It didn't seem to bother them that they did not speak the same language or that they were strangers to each other.
We did not stay in touch and I hope their marriage turned out well, though anecdotal evidence suggests that much might have gone wrong after their instant wedding.
Social workers and divorce lawyers say many of the foreign brides they see marry their Singaporean husbands after whirlwind courtships only to have the unions end disastrously, sometimes after just a few months.
On Friday, the Government announced a series of measures to support the growing number of transnational marriages here.
A key initiative encourages couples to start the application process for a long-term visit pass for the foreigner to stay in Singapore before registering the marriage, instead of after marriage as is the practice now.
When applying, couples have to provide key information about themselves, such as their income, marital history, number of children from previous marriages, as well as criminal and bankruptcy records.
Each party will get to see the other's details. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority will also tell them if the foreign partner will get the long-term visit pass, which usually allows them to stay in Singapore up to a year at a time.
This is a crucial change as some couples may not have been upfront about their backgrounds or may not have spent enough time together to learn the truth before tying the knot.
Telling a couple before marriage if the foreigner will get the long-term visit pass will help them understand visa and other challenges ahead. For some, knowing that staying in Singapore is not a sure thing may be reason to reassess their readiness for marriage.
Hopefully, it will nudge both parties to marry with more awareness of the potential challenges, instead of taking the plunge under the false notions or invalid assumptions that have plagued many of these unions.
Some of them include:
Singapore men are well off. Well, some are. Most are not. The foreign women will find out when the men declare their income.
Marrying a Singaporean means automatic citizenship or permanent residence for the foreigner. In fact, marrying a Singaporean does not automatically qualify a foreigner for long-term stay, permanent residence or citizenship.
The Government has been slow to act in this area, given how the number of transnational marriages has risen rapidly and the impact on families when such marriages fail.
Last year, 30 per cent of all marriages involving at least one Singaporean was to a non-resident, up from 23 per cent in 2003. Non-residents refer to foreigners who are not citizens or permanent residents.
The courts have also seen a growing number of foreign wives seeking personal protection orders against abusive Singaporean husbands.
A sizeable number of transnational marriages are particularly vulnerable for various reasons, especially when the couple did not marry for love.
Poor foreign women from neighbouring countries often marry in the hope of finding a better life in Singapore. Many also hope their husbands will support their families back home.
Many of the men who take foreign wives have had little luck with Singapore women and feel a foreign wife will be more docile and less demanding.
Mismatched expectations of marriage, coupled with a lack of love, understanding and compatibility, have led to countless tales of marital woe and spousal violence.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is also rolling out pre-marriage preparation and post-marriage support programmes for transnational couples.
All this is good, but it may be hard to get couples to benefit as attendance is voluntary.
What also needs to be done is to pour more resources into reaching out to foreign wives and their children who need help, such as those who have been abused or abandoned by their husbands or those struggling with other problems.
Beyond the new initiatives, it will be good to look into the root of the problem: Singapore men's desire for foreign wives, the seemingly endless supply of foreign women, and how couples often rush into marriage.
It will be hard to curb the supply of foreign brides, short of imposing restrictive measures as South Korea and Taiwan have done.
In 2009, Taiwan banned commercial marriage brokers from arranging unions between Taiwanese men and foreign women. Such a ban is unlikely to have much effect here, as most Vietnamese and Chinese women meet Singaporean men through informal networks these days, rather than through marriage brokers.
In April, Seoul required foreigners applying for a resident-through- marriage visa to pass a Korean language proficiency test, and for their Korean spouses to have an annual income of at least US$14,000 (S$17,850).
Most foreign spouses pick up English or Chinese quickly after coming to Singapore, but having a common language is no insurance against marital woes.
Perhaps more needs to be done to disabuse Singapore men of the notion that foreign women are meek, undemanding and prepared to put up with anything just to be here.
They need to know how these marriages can go wrong, the stress and anxiety that result from visa challenges, financial woes and unrealistic expectations of marriage.
Perhaps after hearing cautionary tales, more will invest the time needed to get to know their partners before leaping into marriage.
This article was first published on Oct 26, 2014.
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