Colin Seah and Joy Chan Seah
Directors at Ministry of Design
Architecture-trained designer Colin Seah says that when he first saw Joy Chan Seah 14 years ago, he knew she was the one - a voice had told him that he would take care of her for life. But little did they think that not only would they be married, but be working together as well.
The couple first met at a bible study class. "We were so different. I was a sports jock and into touch rugby. Colin did pottery and was into the culture stuff," she says.
As they lived near each other, Mr Seah would send her home after class. "I found it strange that he would give me rides home, but never ask me out. I even wondered if he is gay," she recalls.
On his part, he says that he took sending her home as a way to develop the friendship. In the end, she asked him out, and their first date was at Jurong Point to watch a movie and later hang out at a coffeeshop.
Ms Chan Seah says that their courtship period was an intense one. "We had different characters and upbringing, and we also saw each other every day."
Mr Seah recalls the times when he would wait for Ms Chan Seah, then a business consultant, to finish work. "I remember once I cooked a New Year's Eve dinner for her, and at 11pm, she was still at work."
He jokes that their emotional roles were reversed. "She behaves more like a man, and won't talk, whereas I'm more like a woman. My family will talk over everything," he says.
Their different backgrounds and characters often lead to disagreements, but yet, this meant that they could introduce to each other their world.
They got married in 2002, when he was 29, and she was 23.
The thought of working together didn't cross their minds, and it only happened when Ministry of Design was moving to a bigger office in 2007. "There were two other designers with me then, and Joy came to the new office and said, 'you all are so organisationally challenged'. She was then in between jobs, and ended up joining the design firm."
Neither had experience working in a local architecture firm. "We didn't know the ins and outs but we would figure out what made sense," says Ms Chan Seah.
"With Joy joining the firm, it freed me up to focus on the design aspect of work," says Mr Seah, who is the firm's design director. Mr Seah's projects include the New Majestic Hotel and the Macalister Mansion in Penang.
As director of business development, Ms Chan Seah oversees the finances, contracts, public relations and human resources. "Joy is my paymaster," says Mr Seah. His wife doesn't contribute design-wise, but Mr Seah says that after being together for 14 years, "she definitely has more awareness about design now".
The couple admit that in their early days of working together, they would have arguments in front of their staff. "They used to go uh-oh, the 'parents' are fighting again, but now we fight with more graciousness," says Ms Chan Seah.
She says that there was a time, when she did consider leaving the company. "It was the recession, and work was slow, and I felt it was my fault," she recalls. "But I knew that if I left the company, there would be detrimental consequences."
Mr Seah remembers that time. "For months, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Joy was giving me the cold shoulder, and I thought there was something wrong with the relationship."
The issue was brought up. "When Colin told me that it is alright if I wanted to leave the company, because he valued our marriage more than work, I was really touched",she recalls. He adds: "I could always downsize the firm if I had to."
The couple start and finish work together, and they make it a point not to talk about work from Friday evenings till Monday mornings.
Mr Seah says that because they are married, and not just colleagues, "we tend to take each other for granted. We may use less care in our choice of words, because we have a bond that we will not break. That's the downside."
The upside being, "we have a deeper understanding of the struggles we share",says Mr Seah.
Ms Chan Seah adds: "Our skills are complementary, so we are able to work together."