SINGAPORE – Since arriving in Singapore from Tamil Nadu in 2014, Indian national Anbalagan Anbarasan’s nightly ritual involved snacking and mindless scrolling on social media. Working out was far from his mind.
But after being encouraged by his friends to sign up for Sunday’s inaugural Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) Bodybuilding Championship, the 29-year-old construction worker has shed 13kg in three months. He now weighs a leaner 82kg.
Anbalagan, who returns from work by about 10pm, now hits the gym at his dormitory in Choa Chu Kang for 30 minutes every night before it closes. When he has more time on Sundays, he goes for a jog around the dormitory premises. Fitness is now his companion.
He said: “My life was all about work and coming back to just chatting with my friends till it’s time to sleep. Joining the competition made me realise I can do more with my time and I am motivated to make sure I lead a healthy lifestyle. I try to encourage my friends to do the same.”
The bodybuilding competition, which saw 38 participants preening and posing in front of a crowd of about 150 at the MWC Recreation Club in Pioneer, is the advocacy group’s latest initiative. It is the first event here to promote bodybuilding and fitness to migrant workers.
As their bodies glistened with suntan lotion, the contestants took to the stage wearing beach shorts or tights and wide smiles. They drew cheers from the crowd as they showed their bulging biceps and washboard abdomens.
Sivanathan Vallathan, a 30-year-old maintenance worker, won the body physique category – which emphasises body symmetry and tone – while Jamanjit Singh, a 29-year-old construction supervisor, was the champion in the bodybuilding category, which focuses on muscle mass.
They received $250 and a trophy each, with $150 and $100 going to the second- and third-placed participants. Every competitor also received a medal of participation.
For Nataraja Periyasamy, 40, a shipping and logistics worker who came to Singapore in 2014 from India, the competition was a chance to learn more about nutrition and showcase his physique.
“I learnt a lot about the kind of food I need to eat to ensure I am getting the most out of my workouts and the coaches here were very helpful with their advice.
“For me, chicken is an expensive meat to buy regularly so they recommended some vegetables as an alternative,” said Nataraja.
He wakes up as early as 5am daily for his gym workouts at Anytime Fitness in Taman Jurong, close to where he lives, before his 12- to 15-hour work shifts.
MWC executive director Bernard Menon said the objective of the event was to give migrant workers who have been “starved of social and sporting pursuits” an opportunity to “participate in something purposeful”.
There are plans to make the championship an annual affair and set up a fully equipped gym at the MWC Recreation Club.
Menon said: “With Covid-19 and the restrictions that were in place, a lot of the workers have had emotional and mental stress.
“Events like this are a way to distract workers and give them a purpose. We want them to know you can have a rewarding time in Singapore and at the same time have a healthy lifestyle.”
Since calls for participants were made in December, the Association of Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Singapore (ABPS) has been supporting the event with equipment and volunteer coaches for its weekly workout sessions on Saturdays.
Its president Alan Ng said: “Today, they are not workers but they are athletes. We hope we have imparted skills that they can keep forever. Hopefully they continue their training and pass on these habits to others.
“When they eventually return to their countries, we want them to return with happy memories and a better physique and lifestyle and not just workplace experiences under the sun.”
The ABPS also hopes to expand the competition to more workers from other countries, which is music to the ears of the participants, including Anbalagan.
He may not have won on Sunday, but he had already gained something invaluable.
The father of a two-year-old daughter said: “My wife told me I look fitter and more handsome and she is happy to know I make the most of my time here.
“I may not have the body that most of the participants here have but I am just starting out and I am just happy to be here and show my progress.
“I hope workers like me will have more of such events to compete in.”