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Opinion Seeing Good, Seeing Evil


Jun 1, 2004
Seeing Good, Seeing Evil


Back when I was young in Singapore, I'd catch the bus every morning to school. The school bus driver was a man called Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh was a Sikh. I remember his face very clearly, bearded and topped with the traditional turban, a different color every day. On his wrist he wore a metal bracelet. There were a few good bumps in the road on our way to school and we used to sit on the back seat of the bus and implore him to go fast over them. He rarely would.

It was one of the wonderful things about growing up in Singapore, living in the midst of such multiculturalism. The English, or Caucasians as a larger group, were only a small minority of the population. Most Singaporeans are Chinese, but there are also sizable populations of Malays and people from the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism is the major religion, but there are Hindus and Christians and Muslims in great number as well. And there are Sikhs.

The government of Singapore, though it is inarguably totalitarian and repressive in many ways, presides over a fabulously successful country, and much of that success is due to its commitment to racial and religious harmony. There is no one set of cultural rules that defines what it is to be Singapore or Singaporean. The whole is the seamless mesh of all the different and diverse parts.

And the food. The food ...

But back to Mr. Singh. I don't know why he was important to me. I suppose, even as a child, you realize those times in your day when you are under the care of an adult different to your parents. It would only be for half an hour twice a day and no, he wouldn't take the bumps fast, but he would guide the bus through the teeming Singapore traffic and get us to school.

He was a quiet and jolly man. Jolly ... a funny word that almost implies not being quiet, but instead being outwardly mirthful. He wasn't that. He had an inward mirth, if that makes sense. Always a wry smile, a twinkle in the eye and a very obvious inner peace.

The history of Sikhism dates back to 15th century in the Punjab region of India. Sikhs pursue salvation and the unification of their souls with God through daily meditation and prayer. They live their lives avoiding five "deadly sins" (though they don't call them that): ego, lust, anger, greed and attachment. Sikhism teaches that all people have the human right of religious freedom, whatever their religion. It teaches moderation, acceptance and equality for all people.

And they don't cut their hair, so the men wrap it all up around the top of their heads and tie it in place with their turbans. The metal wristband is also a given for Sikhs, an external symbol of their religion as if the turban wasn't enough, and a personal reminder to them of their mission in life.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was born in 1949 in Punjab, India. He wasn't my bus driver, he was another Singh. They're all called Singh. Officially, under Sikh custom, Singh is the surname given to all Sikh males; Kaur for females.

This particular Singh lived the first part of his life in India, but came to the United States, presumably in search of a better life, in 1985. He lived in the first years in San Francisco and Los Angeles, working as a cab driver. Over the years, he socked away enough money and in 2000 he bought himself a gas station in Mesa, Arizona.

On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers went down. That afternoon, a guy called Frank Roque was watching the news coverage at a restaurant in Mesa and said to people that he was "going to go out shoot some towel-heads." Four days later, he pulled up outside Mr. Sodhi's Chevron station, saw the turban and fired five shots out of the window. Sodhi had been planting flowers. He was killed instantly.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first post-9/11 hate-crime victim in the country. I suppose that it's to the credit of this country that it took a whole four days for it to happen. But happen it did. He was remembered by his friends as a quiet, gentle and generous man. Children in the Mesa neighborhoods near his station told how he would give them candy even if they had no money. In the aftermath, Balbir Singh was commemorated with a plaque on the 9/11 memorial in Phoenix.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of 9/11 earlier this year, there was a misguided effort launched by Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh to remove Balbir Singh's name from the memorial, claiming in the process that he "wasn't a victim of 9/11." The Sikh community was devastated by the attempt, but thankfully, the legislation was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, so there he stays, immortalized in stone.

So here now, in late September 2011, as we embark on the second decade post-9/11, I read about Mr. Balbir Singh and I'm taken back to the days bumping along on the bus, the colored turban up in the driver's seat. And I'm appalled that someone could have been so ignorant as to mistake a Sikh for the enemy.

The true legacy of 9/11 will be the day, when it comes, when we all fully realize that there is good in other people, in other countries and in other religions. Good in people of color, good in gay people, fat people, ugly people ... that there is good in just about everyone. We will realize that the only evil people are those who see evil in others.

And we will start to practice the noble ideals of moderation, acceptance and equality for all people.

Like good Sikhs.

And that will be a good day when it comes.

[Courtesy: Anchorage Press]

September 23, 2011


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ੴ / Ik▫oaʼnkār
Dec 21, 2010
Aman Singh ji thanks for a very reflective article. In many ways it applies to all countries big and small and all communities big and small.

Real test of fundamental values, decency of breed of a a majority in any situation specially democratic government is not " how the people in the majority feel", it is rather "how they treat a minority". The decency of mankind, religious groups and other clans is judged the same way whether it is India or America.

The future in India is particularly precarious if it is going to be the land it can be. On the North and far East around India, Buddhism is going to find great resurgence over time. In the West and North to Mid West India will face an Islamic constituency. Within, India has a large Islamic constituency followed by Sikhs.

If Indians do not recognize the need and have foresight to see the future as a respect for all and not just the majority, there will be grave danger and possible turmoil.

Let us see how it unfolds for the good of all.

Sat Sri Akal.



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