Wearing a neatly ironed grey shirt and a gleaming pair of dress shoes, construction worker Veerasamy Murugan, 28, could barely hide the grin behind his face mask as he prepared to board a chartered bus at his dormitory in Mandai yesterday morning.
For the first time in 1½ years, he was stepping out of the dorm not to go to work but for a quick jaunt to Little India, his regular haunt until Covid-19 spread like wildfire in the dorms in April last year and sparked months of movement restrictions.
"Inside my room, I am thinking about friend problems, family problems. Outside, I feel free," the Indian national told The Straits Times. "Today, I'm very happy to go out. First, I will go to pray and then I will relax."
Mr Murugan was among 39 migrant workers living in dorms who were the first to take part in a pilot scheme allowing the workers to return to the community after more than 17 months of curbs that kept them largely in their dorms.
Thirty-five workers from Westlite Mandai dormitory and four from The Leo dormitory were bussed to Little India and dropped off in Race Course Lane. Each bus ferried only workers from the same dorm. Another group of about 60 workers from Westlite Mandai and S11 Dormitory visited Little India in the afternoon.
"This is a milestone for us," said Mr Tung Yui Fai, chief of the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Assurance, Care and Engagement Group.
Mr Murugan's first stop was Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Serangoon Road, where priests conducted a simple prayer ritual arranged specially for Hindu workers in the pilot scheme.
He then went to department store Appollo Sellappas, popped by Western Union to wire money home, and had mutton briyani at Chettinadu Restaurant, which he said tastes most like the food from his home town in Tamil Nadu state.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple chairman K. Shekaran said the temple is closely associated with workers from India, and used to host about 10,000 workers on Sunday evenings before the pandemic.
This has shrunk to a negligible number now, he told reporters.
"We have been looking forward to the day when we can welcome (the workers) back, and also give them the spiritual comfort that they have been longing for, for the last 1½ years," he said. "This is a new beginning and hopefully we will see more of them."
The temple, which has been working with MOM to facilitate the pilot scheme, arranged for a blessed bath for the temple's deity to take place during closing hours, for the workers who would arrive in the afternoon.
With only about 100 workers visiting Little India yesterday, shops lamented that business was still slow. Mr Md Nashirul Islam, who owns a travel agency and grocery shop in Lembu Road, said he did not see any dorm residents in his shop.
Mr Rama Murthy, director of Chennai Trading and Supermart, said only one worker stopped to buy groundnuts at his store in Dunlop Street. "Today is a weekday. They will probably buy more over the weekend," he said.
If the pilot succeeds and MOM increases the number of workers allowed in the community, there will be some impact, he said.
Construction supervisor Packrisamy Muruganantham, 36, said visiting Little India yesterday was a familiar but also slightly alien experience. "Last time, (there were) many people, many friends here. Now it is very quiet," he said.