Today • • 14 June

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White Flag: A symbol of hope or a sign of weakness?

There’s no hiding anymore – the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia has been increasingly getting out of hand, with the country getting their highest daily toll for three days straight – hitting numbers above 13,000 on 15 July. It has been an arduous few months for our causeway neighbours, and things are not looking up – even with the continual lockdown in place for weeks now. 

The continual extension of the lockdown has amplified the conversations regarding the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Malaysians. For example, 90% of small and medium-sized enterprises – which accounts for the employment of 7.3 million people – are at risk of closing down. A large number of them have been driven to homelessness and hunger, lost their livelihoods, are facing financial distress and became even more exposed to the growing pandemic.

“We thought at first this year might get better, but it has just been worse and worse.”

Mr Jambu Nathan Kanagasabai, a struggling Malaysian, shared.

Then, the emergence of the White Flag movement. #BenderaPutih

The symbol of help. The way you can seek help when you really need it, because you really need it.

The ‘rakyat-initiated’ campaign gained momentum on social media to help lower income families signal their distress. Struggling individuals are urged to raise a white flag so that their community can provide relief. It’s also a way for those struggling to seek help – without any fear or shame- rather than resorting to other means to cope with their distress, and for them to not suffer in silence alone. 

For Mr Jambu Nathan, he put up the flag after seeing a local shop offering food hampers to those who need immediate assistance. Sharing a house with his wife and his sister, he used to earn around RM 1,300 monthly as a security guard for a goldsmith shop. But he faced financial difficulties due to the pandemic and his livelihood has been severely affected.

For most, the white flag movement is a symbol of hope. A display of unity in trying times. It displays the kind-hearted nature of the Malaysians. They are proud of their fellow citizens lending a helping hand where they could. They see this as something to rejoice, that there is still hope for the people, in the people.

And in a short time, the campaign has gained momentum and help spread like wildfire. Many started to organise fundraisers and arranged for deliveries to those who are in need. Even some supermarkets took part in distributing aid. 

A group of resourceful students even created an app, Sambal SOS, as a way for people to fly their white flags virtually and also a source for people to locate food banks and soup kitchens. The app was created in just four days. 

But for another group, they see the white flag as what it’s usually been seen as – a way of surrendering. A sign of weakness. A sign of giving up. 

Amidst the heartwarming stories of fellow Malaysians stepping up to help those in need, some have criticized the white flag movement as a ‘form of defeat’. 

Some even attributed waving the flag to just being lazy. Some politicians even looked down upon the movement and denounced the act of flying a white flag.

With the increased numbers of mental health issues borne out of the pandemic, it’s easy for some to associate waving a white flag with the act of giving up. 

But putting these negative sentiments aside, it’s no doubt that the movement, led by the rakyat, has been a saving grace for the community. It is an indication of how Malaysian citizens will render help instead of waiting on the government’s assistance. 

One silver lining: Discussions and conversations on mental health are being normalised, especially on social media, and there is no shame or fear from speaking up. 

And for them the message they want to convey is clear: There is no need to be embarrassed to ask for help when you really need it.