Malaysia pandemic spurs White Flag campaign to help those most in need

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

When Mohamad Nor Abdullah placed a white flag in front of his window late at night, he did not expect a swift wave of support. In the morning, dozens of strangers knocked on his door, offering food, money and encouragement.

Malaysia’s national lockdown to curb a wave of coronavirus was tightened on Saturday, banning people in some areas from leaving their homes except to buy food and essentials.

This plunged Mr. Mohamad Nor into despair. He makes a living selling packaged nasi lemak, a popular dish of coconut rice pudding with condiments, every morning at a roadside stall, but that income disappeared and government support was insufficient.

The White Flag campaign that emerged on social media last week aims to help people like Mr Mohamad Nor, who was born unarmed. Luckily, he saw the campaign on Facebook and decided to try asking for help.

“It was so unexpected. So many people have reached out to help, support and encourage me, ”said Mohamad Nor, sitting in his room amid boxes of cookies, rice, cooking oil and water. which were quickly given to him. He said the Good Samaritans had offered to help him pay for the rental of his room and that the help should be enough to get him through the next few months.

The #benderaputih campaign began as a response by Malaysian society to the increase in suicides believed to be linked to the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Police reported 468 suicides in the first five months of this year, up from 631 for all of 2020.

Social media posts urged people to hoist a flag or white cloth to signal that they needed immediate help “without having to beg or feel embarrassed.” Dozens of food retailers and celebrities have responded with offers of help, and many Malaysians have toured their neighborhoods for white flags.

Thousands of people have lost their jobs since Malaysia enacted various travel restrictions, including a coronavirus state of emergency that has suspended parliament since January. The strict national confinement imposed on June 1 is the second in more than a year.

Reports of families receiving prompt help after hoisting a white flag have warmed the hearts of Malaysians. A single mother and her teenage daughter who survived for days on cookies were fed by neighbors, and an indebted hawker on the verge of death received cash assistance to start anew.

While many hail the white flag movement as a manifestation of unity and solidarity, not all agree. A chief minister of the state called the propaganda campaign against the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

The campaign also drew imitators. An animal association encouraged cash-strapped people who could not afford to feed their pets to fly a red flag.

And anti-government protesters launched a black flag campaign over the weekend, with opposition lawmakers and others putting black flags on social media to demand the prime minister’s resignation, the end of the emergency and the reopening of Parliament. However, police reportedly said they were investigating the Black Flag campaign for sedition, public mischief and misuse of network facilities for offensive purposes.

James Chin, an Asian expert at the Australian University of Tasmania, said the white flag movement could fuel public anger at the perceived incompetence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis.

“The White Flag campaign will undoubtedly be used as a major political weapon to show that the government is a massive failure,” he said.

Muhyiddin, who took power in March 2020 after political maneuvering brought down the former reformist government, faces intense challenge from the opposition and within his own coalition. Support for his leadership cannot be tested with the suspension of Parliament.

Muhyiddin’s office said on Monday that the lower house would resume on July 26, just days before the state of emergency expired on August 1, giving in to pressure from the king and state leaders Malay.

Meanwhile, the White Flag campaign continues to address some of the most pressing needs, including those of a Burmese refugee family living on only one meal a day and receiving instant food.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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