On Apr. 22, 2020, when the Ministry of Health (MOH) gazetted Homestay Lodge as an isolation area, a sense of unease blanketed the migrant worker dormitory.
More and more cases were being linked to the cluster at the Homestay Lodge each day, which was declared as a cluster on Apr. 18 with eight cases.
Within a week, another 92 cases were linked to the dormitory in Kaki Bukit.
Its residents worried for their health, the future of their jobs, and the loss of their freedom.
For Murugesan Balamurali, who had lived at Homestay Lodge since coming here from India in 2014, being confined to his room also meant he would be kept away from what he saw as his second home here in Singapore — the dormitory’s gym.
Murugesan is also an avid competitive bodybuilder, and had poured in hours of his time after work into his pursuit of becoming the “champion of champions”.
"During the Covid situation, the gym was closed and I felt very sad,” he told me.
But the 28-year-old air-con technician kept his spirits up with exercises in his room, working out with dumbbells, resistance bands, and body weight exercises like push-ups.
It wasn’t a perfect solution, but he made do.
He also took to creating videos for his fellow residents, showing them how they, too, could exercise without equipment.
The videos were disseminated through a WhatsApp group, which Murugesan also used to send motivational messages and memes as encouragement to the members at a time of uncertainty and growing restlessness.
It was yet another example of the positive impact that bodybuilding had on him, and the ones around him.
A dream to be unique
Murugesan first entered a gym as a skinny 13-year-old in his home town of Ramamthapuram, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
“I was just following my friends,” he said.
Over the years, he became a regular gym user, interested primarily in keeping fit.
But by the time he was 19, Murugesan had developed an obsession with lifting weights and sculpting his physique.
“My dream... is I want to be unique. I want to look different among the people, not just in my hometown but everywhere I want to look unique.”
“That’s why I choose bodybuilding,” he said.
That determination eventually saw Murugesan win two state-level bodybuilding competitions in 2012 and 2013, having attained a body that would turn a Greek god green with envy.
His hard work also earned the budding athlete the nickname of Little Ronnie, after his hero the American bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman.
Leaving his hometown for a new experience
When he turned 22, Murugesan, like many young men from South Asia, decided to leave his home and travel to Singapore to find work.
“I wanted a new experience. (In India) always I stayed my home only, I couldn't go anywhere also.”
While most migrant workers arrive at Kaki Bukit’s Homestay Lodge anxious to settle work-related matters, Murugesan couldn’t help but fixate on finding a spot to work out.
He remembered how on his first day in Singapore, he’d gone to “jalan jalan outside to find a gym”.
Unable to find one nearby, he asked around the dormitory only to be informed that he wouldn’t have to go very far; Homestay Lodge had its very own gym.
“I (was) really happy. I could continue my bodybuilding, I (was) really confident already,” he said laughing.
Six days a week
Despite working long hours, Murugesan told me that he hits the gym six days a week.
He’ll spend each day concentrating on building a different part of his body; his favourite day is Wednesday, when he works on his shoulders.
A workout typically lasts up to one and half hours, varying according to how fatigued the air-con technician is from work.
However, no matter how tired he may be, Murugesan sticks to his schedule, even if it's only for a short 30-minute session.
“My day is complete (only when I get to go to) the gym. Not coming, I feel very sad.”
However, lifting weights is only one part of bodybuilding.
Another important part, said Murugesan, is diet.
To ensure his body has the right nutrition to pack on muscle, Murugesan adheres to a strict protein-rich meal plan; “Bodybuilding is an expensive sport,” he quipped.
Starting a bodybuilding club in his dorm
In 2015, a year after arriving in Singapore, Murugesan, whose physique naturally commanded authority in the gym, began to notice that other workers were also interested in bodybuilding.
Why not start a bodybuilding club, he thought.
“I go ask the [dorm] management, to discuss about this bodybuilding [club]. They supported it.”
Before long, the club started with Murugesan and 10 other workers as its first members.
Murugesan set about teaching them proper techniques for building muscle, how to plan their diets, and of course, how to complete the seven compulsory poses required during competitions.
The group trained with a view towards taking part in an internal competition that would be held as a segment of Homestay Lodge’s quarterly variety show — a highly-anticipated event among residents.
The dorm’s management brought in judges and awarded trophies to the winners, and the competition went on to became a mainstay of the dorm’s quarterly celebrations.
In the week following their inaugural showing, Murugesan’s club found itself inundated with new members inspired to take up a new hobby.
“Even though our internal competition doesn’t necessarily give them a lot of exposure, I think performing in front of a few hundred of their own residents really spurs them on,” said Homestay Lodge manager Mohamed Fuad.
By all accounts, the event is a boisterous affair, popular with the residents at Homestay Lodge.
“They get very noisy,” chuckled Fuad.
“You’ll know who are the crowd favourites.”
Building bodies and discipline
The bodybuilding club's shift onto WhatsApp during the Circuit Breaker period was just one example of how the club had a positive influence for the workers.
“Here, so many people after work are wasting their time. They’re drinking outside, or always fighting.”
“You have free time, you give problems only,” he said, before breaking into laughter.
But Murugesan sees the gym as a place where workers can come to develop themselves, not just physically but in more holistic terms as well.
It offers a community and an opportunity for the workers to learn something new, and uncover previously-unknown capabilities.
“For me the bodybuilding, builds muscles [but also] your self-confidence and good health,” said Murugesan.
“So far my friends, [I’ve seen them] change their habits [and build] discipline.”
“Most of the residents here, they work long hours,” dorm manager Fuad told me.
“So, the fact that they are so dedicated, that they still find the time to train and all, I find that quite impressive.”
Fuad believes the club has helped its members by giving them an outlet for simmering frustrations, concerns, and anxieties.
A supportive community
It also seems to have created a brotherhood and support network among its members — the club’s founder included.
Throughout our interview, as Murugesan and I struggled to overcome a language barrier, the bodybuilder was understandably brief with his responses.
However, he was most articulate when speaking about his close friend and club member Veluchamy Muniapparaj — or Raj for short — a dormitory executive whose role at Homestay Lodge involves monitoring daily operations and looking after residents’ welfare.
After I’d posed my last questions, and as we wrapped up the interview, Murugesan asked me if he could say one more thing:
“When I came to Singapore, my salary was very low. Bodybuilding is an expensive game; I had no money. That’s why [Raj] sponsored me — my chicken, my protein.
That’s why I want to continue here. If he’s no more here, I will be no more here too.”
Becoming the "champion of champions"
Homestay Lodge’s gym had just reopened in the week prior to my meeting with Murugesan.
Due in part to the real risk of virus transmission through the shared equipment, it had been the last of the dormitory’s facilities to reopen,
“I feel very happy. I want to refresh,” Murugesan said.
“Refresh to build my body.”
I watched as Murugesan went through a gamut of exercises to warm up his muscles, before removing the long sleeved sweater he’d been wearing for the duration of our interview.
It was a Wednesday — his favourite day of the week — and he moved around the gym with purpose, methodically targeting different sections of his shoulder muscles with a variety of exercises — shoulder press, front raises, and lateral raises, just to name a few.
While he worked out, the other gym goers paused, almost as if in deference, and with a hint of awe.
Many took out their phones to film Murugesan in action.
He had bulked up considerably from the photos I’d seen of him beforehand; taken when he competed at local events in Singapore in 2015 and 2016.
Those competitions saw Murugesan place second and third.
“I not enough the muscle…that’s why I need to take time, to go again,” he explained.
“I’ve been growing my muscles because I want to be the champion of champions of Singapore also."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image courtesy of Murugesan Balamurali and by Andrew Koay.