To many, raising a white flag is a sign of defeat. But for Malaysians in lockdown it’s about unity

Tasha is one of many Malaysians facing the biggest challenges of their lives.

Key points:

  • A social movement called the White Flag campaign has emerged to enable struggling Malaysians to ask for help
  • Organisations say the nation is facing a mental health crisis due to isolation and loss of loved ones
  • A Black Flag movement has also emerged as a symbol of defiance against the government

Her husband lost his job because of COVID-19 and she has just given birth to her third child.

With no income, the couple are doing their best to buy nappies and to feed themselves.

Sixteen members of her wider family have been infected with coronavirus, and two have died.

“Every day has been a struggle and sometimes I feel like giving up,” Tasha said.

Uma Xavier is another who lost her jobwhile her husband’s work has been drastically cut.

They’ve been living on a maximum household income of RM700 ($225) a month. 

A woman wearing a mask and her son and daughter.
Uma Xavier’s household income had been affected by the pandemic but she’s doing her best to remain strong for her children.(Supplied)

The nationwide lockdown that was announced at the end of May only made things worse and they barely scraped by with RM400 ($130) in June.

“We didn’t have any savings and we feel ashamed, depressed, and frightened,” Ms Xavier said.

“I have to be my children and husband’s pillar of strength and I can only cry in the shower when I’m alone.”

COVID-19 not the only thing on the rise

Tasha and Uma are some of the many Malaysians whose mental health has been affected by the pandemic.

Malaysia has been dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases daily since the end of last year, and lockdowns and restrictions have led to many losing their jobs.

A boy holds a white flag which his family hung to ask for help during Malaysia’s lockdown.(Reuters: Lim Huey Teng)

With many unable to support their families and the increased social isolation, some have taken their own lives.

At the end of June, Malaysian health authorities reported that there had been 631 cases of death by suicide in 2020 alone, with an additional 336 occurring in the first quarter of this year.

That compares to 609 suicide cases reported in all of 2019.

Anita Abu Bakar, the founder of Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association, said she believed the true numbers might be higher.

“There is a huge underreporting of suicide cases because there is still so much stigma about mental health in Malaysia,” she said.

“There is a lot of discrimination and exclusion that happens towards people with mental health disorders.”

A woman wearing a headscarf stands with a white flag out the window of her apartment
A Malaysian woman puts away a white flag after she received help from others.(Reuters: Lim Huey Teng)

Malaysia has also seen an increase in mental health diagnoses.

“People have been cut off from their support system and from effective coping mechanisms,” Ms Abu Bakar said.

“The rocketing number of COVID-19 cases, the loss of loved ones and the economic impact of the pandemic is contributing to an increased number of people being diagnosed with depression.”

The White Flag movement

The issue has sparked an online social movement known as the “Bendera Putih”, or White Flag movement.

Two women in headscarves handing food out to another woman
Nik Faizah Nik Othman (centre) was shocked at the response to her social media post about raising a white flag.(Supplied)

It began when Nik Faizah Nik Othman, an entrepreneur and politician, made a post on Facebook encouraging people to raise a white flag outside their home if they needed help.

“I started this campaign to give people hope to continue their lives throughout this pandemic,” she said.

She didn’t expect her post to go viral — in less than 24 hours it was shared more than 20,000 times.

“I was inspired to write that post after seeing the hardships my community was going through and the rise in suicide cases,” Ms Othman said.

“Raising a white flag is an alternative for those who need help and would like to alert their neighbours and community to provide them with immediate assistance.”

A man reads from his mobile phone outside on the balcony of his apartment
Social media has been key to spreading people’s calls for help.(AP: Vincent Thian)

Ms Abu Bakar said the campaign had helped raise awareness about mental illness in Malaysia and has inspired people to take action.

“The silver lining of the pandemic is that we are now able to normalise discussions about mental health and take away the shame and fear from speaking up.”

An online app was then created by a group of university students a few days after the movement was launched, which enabled people to crowd source information about the white flags and food banks in their area.

The app played an important role in alerting the wider community to Tasha’s white flag and she soon received donations to help feed her family and newborn.

A picture of an app with icons of red alerts and groceries.
An online app was launched following the White Flag campaign to make it easier for Malaysians to find people who need help.(Supplied)

“The people who came to help, even if it was just a little, did a lot to put me at ease,” she said.

Holdifedarry Parimin used to work in the hospitality industry, which has been badly affected by the pandemic.

A man wearing a black mask holding a white flag
Holdifedarry Parimin decided raising a white flag was the best way to help his family.(Supplied)

The 25-year-old has now taken up a job as a food delivery driver but the inconsistent income hasn’t been enough to support his young family.

“I raised a white flag because I really needed financial help,” said Mr Holdifedarry, who used the app to make his white flag more well known.

“This movement made a large difference to us and helped us put food on the table.”

Not everyone is open to asking for help

A family of seven wearing red
Hidayatul Liyana Mohd Haris (centre) was worried about feeling shame if she rasied a white flag.(Supplied)

While the White Flag movement has encouraged struggling Malaysians to ask for help, some are still reluctant to do so.

Hidayatul Liyana Mohd Haris works in the manufacturing industry, which is still operating and has been partly blamed for a rise in cases that began in November.

She risks getting infected when she goes to work but Ms Haris says she has no other choice.

Her husband has been struggling to find work, making her the sole breadwinner for the family of seven.

“There have been times when my husband and I would go to bed hungry just so that our children could eat,” Ms Haris told the ABC.

“I didn’t raise a white flag because I was ashamed and didn’t want people to gossip about us.”

But thanks to some of her neighbours, Ms Haris was still lucky enough to receive some donations of food.

A beacon of hope amid frustration

A white flag made out of a white t-shirt hanging on a balcony
Many Malaysians have created makeshift flags out of T-shirts and towels to tell their community that they need help.(Supplied)

Despite being in “total lockdown” since May, cases continue to climb in Malaysia with a record 11,079 infections reported on Tuesday alone.

The country has been under a state of emergency since January this year to help curb the rise in infections, but partly due to new variants, the virus is still spreading at an alarming rate.

The pandemic has also caused the country’s economy to fall into recession, its worst downturn since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Some Malaysians accuse the government of not doing enough to protect its citizens, which has led to another movement called the “Bendera Hitam”, or Black Flag movement.

Where the White Flag movement aims to encourage people to ask for help, the Black Flag movement is a symbol of defiance towards the government.

Black Flag supporters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who came to power unelected.



But amid the frustration, white flags are continuing to offer hope.

“The movement has restored my confidence in life and society,” Ms Xavier said.

“Humanity does exist regardless of religion, race and political [differences].”

The Malaysian government and the Department of Health did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.

By : Neryssa Azlan – ABC NEWS

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