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White flags across pandemic-stricken Malaysia signal something deeper

It has deepened what it means to be Malaysian, because those giving and receiving the aid transcend the walls of ethnicity, religion, status and political affiliation


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The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in our country, leaving in its trail a mounting death toll, more infections and severe economic hardships for many, especially the vulnerable.

Thousands have lost businesses, jobs, incomes and self-esteem because of rolling lockdowns. Some face domestic violence, divorce, induced poverty and mental health problems.

Others are haunted by outstanding loans and rents. The loan moratorium offered by banks provides only a brief respite from loan-plus-interest repayments.

The i-Citra withdrawal facility of the Employees Provident Fund aims to help the desperate tide over their financial difficulties during the lockdown. But it also means that EPF members are depleting their retirement savings.

Some have been made homeless, living in makeshift homes under bridges or along five-foot ways in cities. 

The floundering economy has left many struggling to put food on the table. Several, at their wit’s end, have been caught shoplifting at retail outlets, stealing basic foodstuffs such as fish and vegetables.

Others are so poor they cannot even buy face masks for their protection, let alone wear double masks for more effective cover. Many of them resort to wearing the same mask several times over, well beyond its useful life.

In the first lockdown, the government provided free face masks to the public, but that is no longer the practice. Hopefully, the law won’t come down hard on those who cannot afford the masks.  

Almost daily, people cry out for urgent help on social media. Others demand that the government allow small businesses to operate so they can earn some income and get back on their feet. The desperation expressed on social media can become so intense that a plea sometimes overflows into seething anger. The singer in the video below eloquently expresses the angst, despair and even anger of those who feel neglected by the very leaders entrusted to take care of the people’s wellbeing.

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Such tremendous socioeconomic pressures have prompted some people to take their own lives in a desperate bid to end these problems. We hear of people leaping off high-rise buildings and bridges or hanging themselves in homes and car parks. From January to May this year, 468 people – including young people – died by suicide. Those who feel they cannot cope should seek help from groups such as the Befrienders.

With the economy battered, despair has gripped many ordinary people. The white flag initiative, mooted by several individuals, emerged in this social context and spread like wildfire.

People who have run out of supplies have been urged to put up white flags outside their homes to save them the embarrassment of having to beg for food.

Good Samaritans would then come to their rescue. Such caring Malaysians have rallied together to offer food and other aid to the desperate. Concerned individuals, NGOs, business establishments, religious bodies and politicians have also set up food banks to save lives and protect human dignity. This commendable gotong-royong spirit falls under the trending hashtag #KitaJagaKita (we’ve got each other’s back).

And so, the white flag has become a crucial lifeline for those in dire straits. This symbol has elements that unite those who have empathy and compassion in their bid to reach out to the vulnerable.

The white flag initiative has also deepened what it means to be Malaysian, to be human, because those giving and receiving the foodstuffs and other essential aid transcend the walls of ethnicity, religion, status and even political affiliation. Politicians had jealously corralled people behind these barriers to be used as their political capital to divide and rule. But such walls have been broken down to some extent.

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The Malaysian-ness of the community-based white flag initiative has prompted groups with an inclusive outlook to step up. Projek Bangsa Malaysia, for instance, got into the act by raising funds through its online marathon Livestream Derma Kilat Rakyat. The funds collected will be distributed to non-profit groups providing aid to the vulnerable.

Young tech-savvy Malaysians have helped by creating websites and apps that connect the vulnerable to those offering aid during the lockdown.  

When the white flag initiative first started, it received brickbats from certain politicians, including those from Pas. They argued that flying a white flag was tantamount to a surrender, giving up on life, which, they said, shouldn’t be encouraged. It was more important to seek help from the Almighty, they maintained.

Critics countered that the vulnerable should do both: to survive, an individual should seek both God’s help and the empathy and assistance of fellow human beings.

Perhaps it is easy for certain politicians to pontificate from the comfort of their mansions, inside a well-stocked kitchen or air-conditioned room, away from harsh social realities. The white flag initiative has gained so much traction in some parts of the country that these politicians appear worried it may have encroached into their political turf. Rumour has it that the food aid organised by the white flag volunteers in these areas faced some ‘difficulties’, as a result.

Apart from the empathy and generosity that the white flag has evoked, it also suggests that the government’s financial and other aid has not been enough to sustain the vulnerable over a prolonged lockdown. Some of those in need may not even have received such handouts.

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The white flag’s popularity among the desperate compelled the government to intervene recently by giving out food to the vulnerable under the Bakul Prihatin Negara aid scheme. This scheme, involving 420,000 food packages worth RM50 each, aims to benefit 1.7 million recipients.

But sceptics wonder how long RM50 worth of foodstuffs will last for a desperate family living under challenging conditions.

Apparently pleased with the government’s effort to provide such food aid, Prime Minister Mahiaddin Yasin remarked in jest that there was no need to fly the white flag. A blue flag would do just fine, he said. (The Perikatan Nasional coalition’s emblem has a dark blue background.)

Mahiaddin’s joke is an indirect admission that the white flag initiative plays a key role in easing the socioeconomic problems that the vulnerable face. It also implies that the government’s cash handouts have been far from adequate.

While we celebrate the socio-political significance of the white flag, remember the initiative has its limitations as it is basically a bandaid solution. The powers that be must put in place long-term strategies to tackle the sliding economy and ease the people’s sufferings.

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 July 2021
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