What is happening?
White flags can be seen flying outside Malaysian homes as a plea for help amidst lockdown. The #benderaputih or the white flag campaign gained momentum earlier this month on social media to help families struggling in times of the pandemic.
The white flags symbolise an indicator that people need food items or assistance. Thus, the campaign is a way for families to appeal for food, work or other essentials as many businesses remain closed and unemployment rises. On Facebook, several #benderaputih groups have been created to help users post pictures and addresses where help is needed. Furthermore, an online app, known as the Sambal SOS app, was created by a group of university students after the movement was launched. This enabled information crowdsourcing about the white flags whilst allowing people to find food banks within the area quickly. In response, neighbours, celebrities, and businesses could offer help by providing/sharing food and necessities.
What caused the movement?
Malaysia has been facing its worst Covid-19 wave these past two months, with total deaths currently reaching up to 7,718 cases as of July 24th. The country has been under a nationwide lockdown since 1 June in an attempt to control this surge in Covid-19 infections. More importantly, as of July 23rd, statistics show that only 16.5% of the country’s 32 million people are fully vaccinated, while 35.1% have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Furthermore, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, repeated lockdowns have decreased the demand for labour, reducing the number of registered jobs by 130,000 during the first quarter of 2021. During the past 16 months, more than 300,000 jobs were lost in the retail sector alone, with 30% of shops closing down permanently. Consequently, suicides rates have increased over the first five months of the year. There were 468 suicides cases, compared to 631 across the entire year in 2020 and 609 in 2019.
Nik Faizah Nik Othman, a social and political activist and deputy chief of the Tumpat Amanah’s women’s wing in Kelantan, was one of the earliest users who made a post on social media to raise a white flag as a signal for urgent assistance. She stated that she wanted to give people hope throughout this pandemic and did not wish to see suicide become a new norm for the younger generation.
But, does everyone agree?
While the White Flag movement has encouraged many to ask for help, some citizens are still reluctant to do so because they are ashamed. More importantly, politicians such as Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, the Kedah’s Chief Minister, claimed the movement to be political propaganda meant to create a narrative that the government has failed. It is reported that the Kedah state government will not recognise using the white flag as a sign of needing aid throughout the lockdown period. Other figures, such as Parti Islam Se-Malaysia’s leader Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, also disagreed with the movement by telling Malaysians not to admit defeat by raising a white flag. Instead, he stated that people should raise their hands in prayer to God.
A beacon of hope and unity
Many people in Malaysia accuse the government of its failure to control the economic impact caused by the pandemic and its inability to protect its citizens. Thus, following the White Flag movement, black flags have appeared as a symbol of opposition towards the government. The Black Flag campaign is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who came into power unelected.
Despite some describing the #benderaputih campaign as surrender and desperation, it is clear that white flags indicate how Malaysian citizens are willing to take action to help each other. Ultimately, this represents a symbol of hope and unity among Malaysian citizens, as for many people, the movement has restored their optimism and confidence in society and life.