SOS Alert: Malaysia’s Bendera Putih Campaign Comes To Rescue Of Those In Need

Malaysia has noticed a series of white cloths being hung outside the local houses, symbolizing the citizens’ plea for help during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has taken a toll on people’s lives all around the world. Healthcare, jobs, economy, mental health, everything has been on the rocks. 

Amid such chaos, Malaysia has noticed a series of white cloths being hung outside the local houses, symbolizing the citizens’ plea for help during the current pandemic.

White flags (or Bendera Putih) have always been associated with negotiation or surrendering. The phrase ‘white flag’ has also found its way into the Cambridge dictionary, which defines it as “a flag that is waved to show that you accept defeat or do not intend to attack”.

Different countries’ military manuals have rules that govern when and how a white flag can be used. For instance, Australia’s Commanders’ Guide (1994) states: “It is important to note that a white flag represents an expression of a desire to negotiate; it is not necessarily an indication of intent to surrender or enter into a cease-fire.” Canada’s LOAC Manual (2001) says, “Personnel bearing a white flag are indicating a desire to negotiate or surrender. They should not be attacked but should be dealt with cautiously.”

The impact of Covid

The Southeastern nation has become a host to the third wave of infections. The Malaysian Government had earlier introduced a nationwide lockdown in June to curb the surge of cases in the country. This lockdown has been further extended with the introduction of strict COVID-induced restrictions on the movement of people and businesses across the country.

“We believe the services sector, and specifically the retail industry, will remain pressured in the near term as consumer activities could be [hindered] by tightened mobility restrictions and closure of nonessential stores,” said Wan Suhaimie, head of economic research at Kenanga Investment Bank.

Malaysia has reported more than 785,000 cases of COVID-19, the third-highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and the Philippines. With the rise in cases and subsequent extension of lockdown, the Malaysian economy has also been severely affected.

The JCER survey had shown a 1.2 percentage point downward revision to its growth rate, which came to 4.1%. Malaysia is observed to have the sharpest downgrade in the growth forecast among the five ASEAN nations.

The country’s economy has contracted 5.6% in 2020, its worst annual performance since the Asian financial crisis, due to strict coronavirus curbs over most of the year.

In the first quarter of 2021, it reduced 0.5% year-on-year, less than expected, due to higher domestic spending and exports.

“The economy is likely to see an uneven impact from the latest lockdown, and more targeted measures — rather than a policy-rate cut — may be more appropriate,” Standard Chartered said in a note.

Analysts said additional fiscal measures and improved external demand should lend more support. Malaysia last week announced a $36-billion aid package, including a 10 billion ringgit ($2.41 billion) direct fiscal injection, cash aid, and subsidies.

The White Flag movement

The introduction and extension of the strict lockdown in the country had pushed the citizens from the low-income strata towards starvation and had severely affected the income of the citizens.

Lack of basic necessities during the pandemic had led to the Bendera Putih movement. According to the movement, families that are devoid of basic essentials or need any other kind of assistance are expected to wave a white flag or hang a piece of white cloth outside their houses to be identified as in need of aid. Aid will hence be provided to such families by their neighbors or by good samaritans.

Sambal SOS app

To make the access of essentials a bit easier for the citizens, Sidharrth Nagappan, Shaun Mak, and Cornelius Pang have built the Sambal SOS app, initially called the Bendera Putih app, to assist people in finding food banks, as well as, locations of white flags where they can send aid.

In tough times like these, a warm pack of nasi lemak with sambal is not just a Malaysian delicacy, it’s a monument of support and a sense of communion.

The stories behind packs of nasi lemak with delicious sambal are what all of us Malaysians have in common, and SOS is a global sign of asking and providing help,” said Sidharrth, Mak, and Pang in a Facebook post.

Rise of smaller movements

The Bendera Putih movement has also given rise to smaller movements such as the Bendera Hitam (Black Flag) movement, which demands the Malaysian Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation. The black flag, being symbolic of protests, has been used to express dissatisfaction of the citizens with the Government.

This movement gained momentum when a group called Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) encouraged the citizens to hang black flags outside their houses, signifying citizens’ protest against the government’s manhandling of the pandemic. Along with the Prime Minister’s resignation, the group has also demanded to lift the state of emergency.

Furthermore, another movement called the Bendera Merah or Red Flag movement which was started by the Malaysian Animal Association, to bring attention to the plight of the abandoned pets of the citizens, who were deserted due to their owners’ economic crises.

Response to the Benderas

The Bendera Putih campaign had gained immense popularity on social media in the first week of July with majorly low-income families reaching out for help. The civil society volunteers have also been actively involved in the movement by sharing details of people who have requested aid, with the people who’ve shown interest in lending help, on various social media handles.

Wealthy neighbors, businesses, politicians, and even celebrities have also pitched to donate.

“It takes a lot of courage (to display the white flag)… Because it’s actually telling everyone that you… can’t manage,” lawmaker Maria Chin Abdullah told Reuters.

“But I think I take it positively – it’s something that this country actually needs because we can’t cover everybody. So it’s good that… you indicate that you need help and we’ll come to you,” she said.

Although, the movement has supposedly not received a positive response from the government. The police personnel have been investigating the black flag campaign on social media and have allegedly charged it with sedition. 

Earlier, eight families staying at a house at Taman Che Mei in Lido had to take down their white flags for fear of being penalized by the authorities. However, authorities have stated that no such directives were issued. The citizens then replaced the flag with a placard to ask for aid which they later received from Luyang assemblyman, Phoong Jin Zhe.

“While the government’s main focus now is on managing the pandemic, it will not let up in supporting the more medium-to-longer term priority of promoting the emergence of a resilient and sustainable private sector. A better understanding of the COVID19 shock in terms of its severity and distribution; and what adjustment mechanisms firms have adopted in the face of this shock, are necessary components in our recovery efforts,” said Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Economy).

“Such information will enable us to design better policies to help smooth the impact of the shock and support a recovery led by a more resilient private sector.”

Earlier in late June, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had announced a $36 billion COVID aid package to help support the economy. A record of 9,170 cases was also reported on July 9 in Malaysia, where the worsening COVID-19 infection rate, considered to be the worst in Southeast Asia in per capita terms, has started threatening the stability of the Malaysian government. 

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