Vincent Thian / AP
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – When Mohamad Nor Abdullah put a white flag outside his window late at night, he was not expecting the rapid outpouring of support. In the morning, dozens of strangers knocked on his door, offering him food, cash and encouragement.
Malaysia’s nationwide lockdown to curb a rise in the coronavirus tightened further on Saturday, prohibiting people in certain areas from leaving their homes except to buy food and essentials.
Mohamad Nor drove him to despair. He makes a living selling packaged nasi lemak, a popular dish of coconut milk rice with seasonings, at a roadside stall every morning, but that income has disappeared and government aid was insufficient.
The white flag campaign that emerged on social media last week aims to help people like Mohamad Nor, who is 29 years old and born without arms. By chance, he saw the campaign on Facebook and decided to try to seek help.
“It was so unexpected. A lot of people came out to help me, support me and also cheer me on,” said Mohamad Nor, sitting in his dingy room amid boxes of biscuits, rice, cooking oil and water that were quickly donated to him. He said the kind Samaritans offered to help him pay for his room rent and that the help should be enough to help him for the next several months.
The #benderaputih campaign began as Malaysian society’s response to the rise in suicides believed to be linked to economic hardship caused by the pandemic. Police reported 468 suicides in the first five months of this year, an average of four per day and a sharp increase from 631 for all of 2020.
Social media posts urged people to wave a white flag or cloth to indicate 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 driven through their neighborhood to find white flags.
Thousands of people have lost their jobs since Malaysia enacted various restrictions on the movement, including a coronavirus state of emergency that has suspended Parliament until August 1. The strict national blockade imposed on June 1 is the second in more than a year.
Cases of coronavirus in Malaysia have risen to more than 778,000 cases, almost seven times more than last year, with more than 5,400 deaths.
Reports of families receiving quick help after raising a white flag have touched the hearts of Malaysians. A single mother and teenage daughter who survived on cookies for days were fed by neighbors, a street vendor in debt about to end his life received cash aid to start over, a family of refugees from Myanmar surviving on just one meal a day she received instant food supplies.
While many hail the white flag movement as a show of unity and solidarity, not everyone agrees.
A lawmaker from an Islamist party, which is part of the ruling coalition, drew public ire when he told people to pray to God instead of waving a white flag in surrender. A state prime minister criticized the campaign as propaganda against the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
It has caused imitators. An animal association encouraged people with financial problems who could not afford to feed their pets to display a red flag.
Anti-government protesters launched a black flag campaign over the weekend, and opposition lawmakers and others posted black flags on social media demanding the prime minister’s resignation, an end to the emergency, and the reopening of Parliament. However, the police reportedly said they are investigating the black flag campaign for sedition, public mischief and misuse of network facilities for offensive purposes.
Muhyiddin, who came to power in 2019 after political maneuvers toppled the former reformist government, faces intense challenge from the opposition and within his own coalition. Support for his leadership cannot be tested with parliament suspended.
James Chin, an Asian expert at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said the white flag movement could fuel public anger over the perception of an inept in the government’s ability to handle the crisis.
“The white flag campaign will undoubtedly be used as an important political weapon to show that the government is a massive failure,” he said.