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A POPULATION often stereotyped as politically apathetic could be nearing its wit’s end. In light of recent public demonstrations, subsequent crackdowns, and spikes in social media discussion, we are left to wonder where the future of discourse and protest lies for Malaysia. How potent will cries to #Lawan be in catalysing change, when all other avenues of democratic appeal appear exhausted?
How did it begin?
It is first worth examining the origin of the recent outcry: necessity.
The Bendera Putih movement, which urged B40 and M40 groups to raise white flags to signal food poverty, was met with scorn when it emerged. A number of politicians dismissed it as political propaganda and ex-prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin suggested in July that “the kitchens of homes are full” and that there was no need to raise white flags.
Statistics indicate otherwise. In the wake of an indefinite lockdown and misallocation of resources, a study by the Merdeka Centre suggested that five to eight percent of Malaysia’s population could fall into poverty, which is about 2.8 million people unable to do things like buy milk powder and pay rent.
Bendera Putih was symbolic then, and borne more of utter desperation than defeat. Distressing living conditions led a civil society running on compassion to fundraise, distribute aid, and even direct users to food banks using crowd-sourced data, with the ‘Sambal SOS’ app reaching thousands. Countless organisations responded to the scarcity, but the capacity of ad hoc food banks to feed so many mouths is bound to be finite.
Fiscal policy should bear the full burden of financial aid, but of the billions of ringgit promised in stimulus packages like ‘Pemulih’, the International Labour Organisation questioned how much was being delivered in the short term – raising issues regarding the source of money, sustainability, frequency, those in informal employment, information asymmetry, provisions for foreign workers and more.
Additionally, police recorded that the number of suicide cases between January and May this year already tops those in 2020, and cases of mental illness are higher amidst the B40 group, according to the Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA). It could very well be that the “kitchens of homes” are empty, and such dire conditions have led many to turn to a democracy nowhere to be found.
Parliamentary sittings have been postponed indefinitely after the first session this year was disrupted over apparent infection concerns. The recent resignation of PM Muhyiddin, although an appeasement of one of the demands of the #Lawan protestors, inspires an air of trepidation and impatience.
Will his already controversial successor be able to act with urgency, especially considering this is the second time in little over a year that a premier has bypassed a direct election to be placed in power? Ultimately, it is regrettable that indefinite political squabble for power draws attention away from the very conditions that necessitated intelligent policy to begin with.