KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When Mohamad Nor Abdullah put a white flag outside his window late at night, he didn’t expect the swift outpouring of support. By morning, dozens of strangers knocked on his door, offering food, cash and encouragement.
Malaysia’s nationwide lockdown to curb a coronavirus surge was tightened further on Saturday, banning people in certain areas from leaving their homes except to buy food and necessities.
It lurched Mohamad Nor into desperation. He ekes out a living by selling packed nasi lemak, a popular dish of coconut milk rice with condiments, at a roadside stall every morning, but that income has vanished 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 and was born without arms. By chance, he saw the campaign on Facebook and decided to try to seek help.
“It was so unexpected. So many people reached out to help, support and also encouraged me,” Mohamad Nor said, sitting in his dingy room amid boxes of biscuits, rice, cooking oil and water that were swiftly donated to him. He said kind Samaritans offered to help pay his room rental and that the assistance should be enough to tide him through the next few months.
The #benderaputih campaign began as Malaysian society’s response to rising suicides believed linked to economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Police reported 468 suicides in the first five months this year, an average of four a day and up sharply from 631 for the whole of 2020.
Social media posts urged people to hoist a white flag or cloth to signal they needed immediate help “without having to beg or feel embarrassed.” Scores of food retailers and celebrities have responded with offers of help and many Malaysians have driven around their neighborhood to find white flags.
Thousands of people have lost their jobs since Malaysia enacted various curbs on movement, including a coronavirus state of emergency that has suspended Parliament until Aug. 1. The strict national lockdown imposed on June 1 is the second in more than a year.
Coronavirus cases in Malaysia have jumped to more than 778,000 cases, nearly seven-fold from the whole of last year, with over 5,400 deaths.
Reports of families receiving speedy help after raising a white flag have warmed the hearts of Malaysians. A single mother and her teenage daughter who survived on biscuits for days were fed by neighbors, an indebted hawker on the verge of ending his life received cash help to start anew, a Myanmar refugee family who survive on just one meal a day were given instant food supplies.
While many hail the white flag movement as a show of unity and solidarity, not all agree.
A lawmaker from an Islamist party, which is part of the ruling coalition, attracted public anger when he told people to pray to God instead of waving a white flag in surrender. A state chief minister slammed the campaign as propaganda against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.
It has sparked copycats. An animal association encouraged financially strapped people who couldn’t afford to feed their pets to display a red flag.
Anti-government protesters launched a black flag campaign over the weekend, with opposition lawmakers and others putting up black flags on social media to demand the premier to resign, for an end to the emergency and for Parliament to reopen. Police however, reportedly said they are investigating the black flag campaign for sedition, public mischief and misuse of network facilities for offensive purposes.
Muhyiddin, who took power in 2019 after political maneuvers 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 parliament suspended.
James Chin, an Asian expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said the white flag movement could fuel public anger over a perceived inept in the government’s ability to manage the crisis.
“The white flag campaign will no doubt be used as a major political weapon to show that the government is a massive failure,” he said.