On the brink of starting his political career, Sunny Singh found himself the subject of an unprovoked attack. Instead of getting angry, he made a phone call.
My Australia is a special series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2019.
From his Port Augusta home, Sunny Singh is reluctant to talk about the moment that nearly overshadowed the start of his political career in October.
“To start with, it was bad, but it ended up all good,” the 32-year-old says.
Singh, a proud Sikh man who has lived in South Australia for a decade, was a first-time candidate in the Port Augusta City Council elections when a video started circulating online.
In it, a truck driver is seen punching a cardboard cutout of Singh from his election campaign and mocking his Indian heritage, saying “this is Australia … fit in or f*** off.”
Many condemned the act and stood up in support of Singh, including Port Augusta’s newly elected Mayor Brett Benbow.
“He didn’t show his hurt, but I believe he would have been hurt by what occurred, and what did happen was a disgrace,” he told SBS News.
What Singh did next would draw widespread support.
He picked up a phone and called the man who made the video. A truck driver named Grant Moroney answered. They agreed to meet in person.
“I wanted to meet the man who did the video because I really wanted to show him how I am as a person, who we are and what is our culture,” he said.
I wanted to meet the man ... to show him who we are and what is our culture.
He didn’t believe Moroney was a bad person.
“If [he] had known me, he would never have done that.”
According to Singh, the truck driver apologised. A photo of the pair smiling and shaking hands appeared online.
Then came another victory. Singh was elected as an area councillor.
Like many migrants, Singh and his wife Soni left their families behind in search of a better opportunity overseas.
They came to Australia from northern India in 2008 with just a couple of suitcases and a few thousand dollars.
“I remember that first when we moved here, we bought all of our groceries from the Shell because we didn’t know about Coles and Woolworths,” he said.
They’d never heard of Port Augusta but moved there after Singh landed a job as a taxi driver. He’d been running a gym in India.
Port Augusta is a small, picturesque but remote city, nestled between the Flinders Ranges and the Spencer Gulf, with a population of almost 14,000.
The hot desert climate regularly sends the temperatures into the mid-40s in summer. Front yards are more likely to be raked earth than grass.
The couple found they liked it.
“The community is very friendly, and life is very easy, no traffic,” Singh said.
But life in those early days, wasn’t perfect.
Soni picked up shifts at Hungry Jack’s and made eight-hour return trips to Adelaide on the bus to continue her studies.
The remoteness was a challenge, and they had some concerns about safety.
“At that time, this town wasn’t as good as it is now,” she said. “There was no dry zone [alcohol-free] or anything.”
Singh made a good impression and the taxi company went on to offer him a management position as well as sponsorship. He is now a citizen.
Over the years, he helped set up social events for the city’s growing Indian community.
“People started getting together to do some little functions, then, suddenly, some cricket lovers advised that we should start a cricket club,” he said.
“That was the massive change in our Indian community in Port Augusta.”
Another change was the establishment of a Sikh temple, where members of the community would meet to pray and share a meal.
But that bright spot in community life was tainted when the temple became a target for vandals.
Worshippers arriving to pray early one morning in January 2017 and found windows had been smashed and property stolen.
Though disappointed, Mr Singh searched for hope in the unpleasant event.
“It was a bad feeling when we saw that but the response from community was very good,” he said.
He and other temple members offered support to the unknown offenders. They were never found.
“Forgiving is the main thing for Sikh religion,” Singh said. “Whatever you can, you should forgive.”
Forgiving is the main thing for Sikh religion. Whatever you can, you should forgive.
He is looking forward to his new council role and wants to focus on safety, security and making the neighbourhood more attractive.
“It’s something I always wanted to do for my community,” he said.
“I think Sunny will make a very good councillor,” said Brett Benbow. “He’s approachable, he’s sociable, he’s very community-minded.”
While some of the couple’s Indian friends have relocated to Melbourne, Singh says they plan to stay in Port Augusta, where they’ve built a home and now raise their four-year-old son Ranvijay.
“Instead of leaving the town and going somewhere else, we should fix the issues what we’ve got here,” he said.
And his advice to new migrants?
"Mix up with the Aussie culture, and tell them the positive things about you," Singh said.
Grant Moroney could not be reached for comment, but Singh says the two are still in touch.
"We send messages to each other, and we are like good friends.”
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