Of white, red and black flags …

I will go down with this ship and I won’t put my hands up and surrender; there will be no white flag above my door…  

– Dido, singer-songwriter

A former collegemate, a retired Polis Diraja Malaysia ASP staying in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya — let’s just call her Siti — sent me a long Telegram message last Thursday. It was in Bahasa Malaysia, but I have decided to give readers an abridged English translated version.

“Raj, are we at war (guess she’s just being sarcastic)? I am asking because several of my neighbours have started flying white flags. I am confused lah. Thought white flags are a symbol of truce or surrender.

“I am ashamed … I think the white flag is being abused here in this country. Well, if they are desperate and are seeking food either for themselves or their families, why not approach NGOs or government agencies?

“Really don’t know who started this white flag thing! Malu lah! Aren’t we putting down the government? It would appear our elected government is neglecting the rakyat. Someone is exploiting the current pandemic … the Opposition?”

I reciprocated with an equally long message. The gist of my message was these were desperate times (blame it on Covid-19) and people were struggling to survive. Doesn’t matter who came up with the white flag campaign — NGOs, the Opposition or concerned individuals.

The objective was noble — to help fellow Malaysians in desperate need of assistance.

Siti didn’t acknowledge my reply. She still hasn’t replied at the time of writing this column. Maybe my reply didn’t go down well with her. It’s okay.

Before I proceed further let’s look at what the white flag symbolises.

This is Wikipedia’s explanation of the meaning of the white flag: “The white flag is an internationally recognised protective sign of truce or ceasefire, and for negotiation. It is also used to symbolise surrender, since it is often the weaker party which requests the negotiation.

“A white flag signifies to all that an approaching negotiator is unarmed, with an intent to surrender or a desire to communicate. Persons carrying or waving a white flag are not to be fired upon, nor are they allowed to open fire.

“It is also flown on ships serving as cartels.”

But now, no thanks to Covid-19, the white flag is flown — in Malaysia especially — outside homes and premises, and even carried around by individuals seeking alms. These are desperate moments for desperate citizens, who otherwise would not have resorted to this measure under normal circumstances.

No, I am definitely not against the white flag nor am I for it.

As the American writer William S. Burroughs once said: “Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.”

Malaysians are proud people. Most will never ever think of revealing their desperate position, especially if it involves putting food on the table for their families. They would rather let their families — even children — starve than to beg for food.

The whole idea of the white flag campaign which started early this month was for hungry families or those requiring any form of aid to put a piece of white cloth outside their homes or premises to signal their need for help.

The idea is to draw the attention of neighbours or good Samaritans to help them. Or to alert NGOs or kind-hearted individuals to provide assistance.

One good thing that came out of the white flag campaign was that Malaysians were indeed a caring lot who wouldn’t think twice about coming to the aid of their fellow countrymen — be they Iban, Malay, Melanau, Chinese, Kadazan, Indian or Bidayuh.

It’s heartening and very touching to come across multinationals, government agencies, political parties, NGOs, houses of worship, businessmen — big time and small time — and individuals all contributing in whatever way they could.

A close friend anonymously donated a cool RM25,000 to a house of worship. I was with him when he gave the donation — in cash, wrapped in a piece of cloth — to an administrative staff member.

This friend felt it was time to give back to society what he had earned from the community.

But the well-intentioned white flag also spawned the black flag group which emerged to express dissatisfaction with the government. This group is demanding that Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin step down. The members are now under police investigation.

Yet another group has emerged — the red flag movement. Started by the Malaysian Animal Association, it targets families who abandon pets which they couldn’t afford to feed.

White flag, red flag or black flag movements, Malaysians have come of age. The authorities should take heed of these groups and come up with appropriate solutions. Remember, they are no longer sheep that follow the shepherd blindly.