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Desperate Malaysians fly white flags as a call for help to survive COVID-19 lockdown

Desperate Malaysians fly white flags as a call for help to survive COVID-19 lockdown

Jambu Nathan Kanagasabai put up a white flag as a desperate call for help. It has since been taken down after he received aid from the village committee. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

KUALA LUMPUR: At the gate of a wooden and brick house in Sungai Way New Village, Petaling Jaya, a white flag hung limply on a long stick. 

Mr Jambu Nathan Kanagasabai, 64, put up the flag on Thursday (Jul 1) morning after seeing a post by a local retail chain offering food hampers to those in desperate need of assistance. 

Shortly after that, passers-by took notice of his plea and alerted the local village committee.  

"The committee chairman offered my father some cash, but he just needed food because 'segan' (ashamed)," Mr Jambu Nathan's daughter Vani told CNA. 

Mr Jambu Nathan, his wife and his sister share a house at the Malayan Emergency-era settlement. He used to earn about RM1,300 (US$312)  monthly as a security guard for a goldsmith shop.

With that money and small contributions from his children, he could afford to buy food and pay for rent, utilities and his wife's medication.

This income vanished during the first movement control order (MCO) last year to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the shop was shut as a non-essential business. And this was repeated during the next two MCOs and the current first phase of the National Recovery Plan.

"I received RM500 through the government's Bantuan Prihatin Rakyat handouts, but RM450 of that goes towards rent," Mr Jambu Nathan said.

Jambu Nathan Kanagasabai and his daughter Vani. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Vani, his daughter, said they could not afford to give him the same amount of money because they were also facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic. 

Her electrician service business was not permitted to operate and she has to take care of her own children and in-laws. 

"We thought at first this year might get better, but it has just been worse and worse," Mr Jambu Nathan said.

READ: 'We focus on getting through each day' - Old KL eateries dig into savings while waiting out COVID-19 storm

Mr Jambu Nathan was one of those whose livelihoods have been severely affected by the varying degrees of lockdown in Malaysia since last March. On Jun 1, a total lockdown for the entire country was enforced and many parts of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were placed under stricter curbs beginning Saturday.

A movement calling for those in desperate need of assistance to fly a white flag as an SOS call began gaining momentum on social media last week. Members of the public who see a white flag are encouraged to step forward to offer help. 

Heart-wrenching accounts of people who have depleted their savings due to the pandemic and have to raise a white flag to call for help have since surfaced. 

Despite this, the movement has also raised eyebrows, with some politicians denouncing the act of flying a white flag, which traditionally symbolises surrender.    


Another Malaysian who has put up a white flag was Mr Lim Boon Wah, 65, who lives in Kampung Chempaka, Petaling Jaya with his wife Wong Ah Yuen, 61. 

“I’m not shy to admit, I don't have savings anymore,” he told CNA. 

He put up the flag on Thursday morning after his friends alerted him of the movement.  

Lim Boon Wah and his wife Wong Ah Yuen rent a room in this house in Kampung Cempaka, Petaling Jaya. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

When CNA met the couple at their house, a woman came to hand them some cash, while two employees from the aforementioned local retail chain showed up with a care package.

Earlier, state assemblyman Siti Jamaliah Jamaluddin and Kampung Cempaka’s village committee chairman Theresa Lim also presented them with some dry foodstuffs.

The aid would be sufficient for the next two months, Mr Lim said, adding that they have been subsisting on instant noodles every day. 

Kampung Cempaka village committee chairman Theresa Lim and state assemblyman Siti Jamaliah Jamaluddin (left) arriving with some food for Lim Boon Wah and his wife Wong Ah Yuen (right). (Photo courtesy of Leong Chee Cheng)

“We’ve cleaned out what little savings and retirement funds we accumulated, on account of my illness,” he said. 

Mr Lim and his wife worked as sales promoters at a local supermarket in Kuala Lumpur, but after his kidneys failed, he was asked to resign, and his wife shortly followed.

Losing their jobs meant they had to rush to find cheaper accommodation back in 2019 and to survive on their meagre retirement funds. 

READ: Parents in Malaysia fret over academic progress amid prolonged school closure, online learning

At their age and with her husband’s condition, it was almost impossible to find any jobs - even menial ones - in the current economy, which contracted by 5.6 per cent in 2020. 

Even with free dialysis arranged by a charity, travelling to the centre and the medication cost money. 

Mr Lim said he often woke up at night, wondering how they would be able to afford the fees and the rental. 

“At times, I’ve thought about giving up. It would be simple, just don’t attend a few hemodialysis sessions and just pass away quietly,” he said. 


Social and political activist Nik Faizah Nik Othman, who is the deputy chief of the Tumpat Amanah's women’s wing in Kelantan, was identified as one of the earliest Twitter users to suggest flying a white flag to indicate the household needs urgent assistance.

“I was saddened seeing the suicide incidents taking place every day, hence I started this campaign. I feel these (suicides) should not take place, and indicate something far worse will happen to the country if the issue is neglected,” she told CNA. 

Mdm Nik Faizah added that she did not wish to see acts of suicide become a new norm for the younger generation.

Nik Faizah Nik Othman, deputy chief of the Tumpat Amanah's women’s wing, is identified as one of the earliest Twitter users to suggest flying white flags as a call for urgent help. (Photo: Facebook/Nik Faizah Nik Othman)

“Hence the idea to get those who are in difficulty and depression to raise a white flag as a call for help came by spontaneously,” she said.  

Police statistics showed that a total of 468 suicide cases were reported nationwide from January to May, and Selangor topped the chart with 117 cases. Three main causes were family problems, emotional pressure and finances, according to Criminal Investigation Department director Abd Jalil Hassan.  

In Tumpat, Mdm Nik Faizah said, some households had flown white flags and received assistance from the public.

“Even so, many would rather live in difficulty than taking the initiative to fly the flag due to embarrassment, fear of accusations from others and the lack of confidence that they'll actually receive help,” she added. 

Mdm Lim, the village committee chairman of Kampung Cempaka, said the appearance of a white flag had come as a surprise, as she was already running a food aid programme distributing dry foods to over 300 households. 

Theresa Lim and her assistant packing dry foods in aid of needy recipients in Kampung Cempaka, Petaling Jaya. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

“We went on morning rounds to see if there were any flags put up, so when I saw Mr Lim’s white flag, I quickly informed our local city councillor and state assemblyman, and we managed to put together a care package which we passed to Mdm Wong,” she said. 

She added that she would be following up with the couple and would discuss how best to help them with the state assemblyman.

“There are various schemes to help them, so we can help guide them in terms of application, and if more aid is needed, I can still call the charities for help,” she said. 


Despite the heartwarming tales of people stepping up to help fellow Malaysians, some have decried the white flag movement as a form of defeat. 

The Kedah state government, for instance, said it would not aid those who put up such flags. 

Kedah Chief Minister Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor was reported by Malay-language daily Utusan Melayu as saying that the state government would not recognise using the white flag as a sign of needing food aid throughout the lockdown period.

READ: Commentary - Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s COVID-19 response

The chief minister was quoted as saying that the government would only channel food aid to those who had officially requested such as by phoning in to the local disaster control centres.

He claimed that the white flag was a political propaganda to create the perception that the government had failed in the eyes of society.

Bachok MP Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz posted on his Facebook page, stating that rather than raising a white flag, those in need should “raise their hands and pray to God.”

“Don’t raise surrender towards tests by teaching the people to fly white flags,” the politician said, drawing the ire of some netizens.

A religious ruling posted on the website of the federal territories mufti's office noted that such an act is permissible if it makes it easier for those willing to help to identify needy recipients. "However, if we see it as something that would embarrass us, then it should be avoided," the article read. 

The article noted that people in need of help could also reach out to those who offer aid directly. "It is up to each individual's judgement in implementing the methods and initiatives that one feels comfortable with."

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Source: CNA/vt