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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Explained: The white flag campaign in Malaysia, triggered by Covid-19 distress

Apart from the white flag campaign, Malaysia is also witnessing a black flag movement and a red flag movement.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 7, 2021 7:23:02 am
A car cleaner who lost his job during the lockdown, hangs a white flag to seek help from members of the public outside his home, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 5, 2021. (Reuters)

In Malaysia, some residents of low-income families have started waving white flags as part of the so-called “White Flag Campaign”, or the #benderaputi (white flag) movement. They are doing this to convey distress about the financial crunch they have had to deal with amid the lockdowns due to Covid-19. Malaysia enforced another lockdown on June 1 in order to control another surge of Covid infections.

On Tuesday, Malaysia recorded more than 7,000 cases, which is the highest the country has seen in over a month. Kuala Lumpur, the capital city, recorded about 1,500 infections.

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So what is this movement?

As part of the movement that was initiated last week, families that are facing hunger or need any other kind of assistance are encouraged to wave a white flag or put a piece of white cloth outside their homes to signal that they need help. The idea is that by spotting the white flag, neighbours and good samaritans can reach them.

On the Sambal SOS app, which was initially called the Bendera Putih app, people can see the map of Malaysia where active food banks are marked. This is to help people easily track down food banks. Some fishermen from Penang are also helping out the community by handing over fresh fish to families in need.


Alongside the white flag movement, there is the black flag movement as well, in order to express dissatisfaction with the Malaysian government. Specifically, this movement is demanding that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resign. The New Straits Times reported on July 4 that the police were investigating the black flag campaign on social media “for allegedly containing seditious elements.”

On July 3, a group called Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) urged the public to raise black flags as a sign of protest against the government’s management of the pandemic. The group demanded that Yassin resign and that the Parliament convene to lift the state of emergency.

But the police seem to be wary of white flag wavers as well. The Borneo Post reported last week that eight families staying at a house at Taman Che Mei in Lido took down their white flags for fear of being penalised by the authorities. However, authorities maintained that no such directives were issued, the report said.

According to an opinion piece published by the Malay Mail, there is yet another movement called the red flag campaign or #benderamerah, that works in the same way as the white flag movement, but the difference is that the former is targetted at Malaysian citizens only and was started by the Malaysian Animal Association as many families were abandoning pets they couldn’t afford to feed.

Why use white flags?

The world over, white flags are used as a symbol of surrender or truce. 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”.

In fact, 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.”

But Malaysians are not alone in signalling their distress and food insecurity amid the pandemic through this symbol. Something similar happened at the other end of the world in 2020.

Last year, the journal Social Text noted that in some Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “white flags have appeared all over the social terrain as indictments of a failed political and economic system whose primary effect for common people has been enduring a life of dehumanization, precarity, and marginalization.”

The article added, “These white flags then, draped on windows, on doors, hanging perilously from lampposts and torn steel sheets that optimistically shield families from the fumes and sounds of passing traffic, are a prism for seeing the reality of damaged life in these humid climes.”

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