To give (up) and to learn: #BenderaPutih as an education in solidarity

by Aizuddin Mohamed Anuar

A strange dream infects and distorts reality:

The former Abah publicly announces that he is overcome by watery defecations, embarrassed to employ the vernacular term—cirit-birit. We will plunder your solidarity and mask it as ours. Mother Superior questions the jealousy of her subjects. The banker, a gold spoon in his mouth, underplays ghosts of economic woes. Tear down the forests, uproot the natives. Beneath their feet lie our riches! Politikus rush to offer a contingent, helping hand after fraternising with pungent fruit. Pose for the camera; perform your gratitude for the rats. Tranquilo. Raise me unto the heaven of public opinion as I do exactly what I am overpaid to do. Junior healers live on borrowed time. There’s something about baguettes and croissants in the bourgeois heart of darkness. The police state creeps in, hangs thick in the road, muffling the sounds of struggle. Feminine excess takes the form of a “glow-up” as power revels in a new, hollow image. Sell your faith in the markets. Pray the pain away. Gatopardismo. You are told it is all in your head because we are one big happy family…

Something had been brewing at home.

I watched from afar as a political moment unfolds. In Malaysia, over the past two months, white flags were raised outside homes and small businesses, on electric lines and as avatars in online spaces. White flags hung outside balconies of apartment buildings, waving in the quiet day as the lockdown dragged on. Galvanised by the sign #BenderaPutih (#WhiteFlag), a grassroots movement swept over the country. It is a metaphor, but of what? Is it a sign of surrender amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, one often framed in the language of war? Who is the public at war with, and who is manning the enemy lines?

As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths surged in Malaysia—a stark contrast from one year ago when it seemed that the pandemic was beginning to be contained—there is electric frustration coursing through the public. Lockdown rules are arbitrary and ineffectual, government assistance is not forthcoming, enforcement of operating procedures and fines seem to selectively benefit the elites. The people’s savings are dwindling, and livelihoods are at stake. All the while, politicians play musical chairs—the chairs gilded, the music ostentatious. Out with the old, in with the old. A Malay proverb comes to mind: Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah.[1]

Something had been brewing at home.

Added to the deaths from COVID-19 were rising suicide cases in Malaysia in the first five months of 2021, compared to previous years. The “subaltern speaks through dying”, says Gayatri Spivak, remarking on people perishing under conditions of severe oppression across the world. In Malaysia, challenges in the home, economic hardship and emotional duress drove some over the edge. The people who survive stand witness to such acts amidst an atmosphere of extreme bleakness. To raise a bendera putih (white flag) in the face of mortality is an act of survival. A gesture seen as to give up also breaks open the space for the public to give of what they have, for each other. Thus the hoisting of the bendera putih presents an educative moment in emerging solidarity among the people. Paulo Freire reminds us in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture…true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these “beings for another”…True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis.

As bendera putih cropped up in communities all over the country, Malaysians began to rise up in droves, mobilising financial and material support via sightings of white flags and white t-shirts in their own neighbourhoods and in virtual groups. Geographies of aid are made real through rapidly developed mobile apps and websites that tag locations of givers and takers. This is embodied, emergent solidarity to transform the objective reality on the ground, even as the establishment seeks to downplay people’s acute suffering and discredit their testimony. In a display of shared symbolic and linguistic recognition of the bendera putih, similar movements have cropped up in Indonesia.

Something had been brewing at home.

I argue that #BenderaPutih is a political act, one that educates Malaysians about solidarity in and through action. As the people seek to give and survive in an organic movement, a process of learning is embodied. #BenderaPutih seemed like a project of making a new reality, a new world for survival, one constructed by the people for the people. Indeed, interruptions and negotiations related to the nature(s) of #BenderaPutih continue to unfold. This in itself is educative. Among the middle-class, those who view their participation as charity—merely as helping—are prone to dictating what recipients raising bendera putih do/not deserve, what they can/not ask for. Partisan politicians, witnessing the momentum gained by this movement among their potential voting base, openly co-opt the cause in the name and language of solidarity. The nouveau riche accuse the poor of laziness, of giving up too easily by raising a flag of surrender. Yet the people remind each other of an ethics of care, of equal humanity through the signs #KitaJagaKita and #RakyatJagaRakyat (we look out for each other, the people look out for the people). We are learning that publicity—the cynical game of partisan politicians—must be decentred in favour of dignity.

As an emergent and contingent configuration, there is perhaps trepidation to view the world-making, educative project of #BenderaPutih as political. After all, it was political instability tied to a state election that led to an upswing of cases when conditions were seen to be improving in Malaysia one year ago. However, the view of politics as exclusively the partisan variety that is endemic in Malaysia limits our imagination, agency and scope of what it means to be political. Let’s not politicise the pandemic, is an oft-repeated refrain from all sides. But at base, to be “political”, in the radical return to its Greek root polis, is to be in community and to actively take charge of its organisation.

To consider and participate actively in #BenderaPutih as a political education project is to engage in the conditions described by Henry Giroux where

learning would be linked to social change in a wide variety of social sites, and pedagogy would take on the task of regenerating both a renewed sense of social and political agency and a critical subversion of dominant power itself. Under such circumstances, agency becomes the site through which power is not transcended but reworked, replayed, and restaged in productive ways.

Something had been brewing at home.

How long can the fervour and stamina surrounding #BenderaPutih be “realistically” sustained? If it is perceived as a temporary movement while waiting for the (un)elected government to finally save the people, then it becomes a pragmatic question. But this line of thinking also risks reifying the temporal nature of #BenderaPutih and diminish its educative potency for long-term political change. Instead, I pose this ontological question: As a matter of survival, can the people afford to close the space opened up by #BenderaPutih—to learn and embody solidarity—and discharge our political agency merely to the ballot box every four or five years?

It is thus through the educative act of giving and receiving under the shade of #BenderaPutih, of negotiating (un)comfortable alliances, of unlearning prejudices about those who are deprived on the way to solidarity, that we may learn to emancipate from a calcified brand of politics. As the people build and exercise our political agency in this way, the moral semiotics of #BenderaPutih as a sign/al of the failure of conventional politics may (or may not) delegitimise and stir discomfort among the establishment. Still, the raising and witnessing of the bendera putih serve as a political moment, gesturing to an emergent education in solidarity. This is an embryonic eruption of collective consciousness. In #BenderaPutih endures the hope of solidarity which is still ours for the making, and the giving. To close, Ruth Wilson Gilmore expresses this undying hope so movingly:

Solidarity is something that is made and remade and remade, it never just is. I think of that in terms of radical dependency, that we come absolutely to depend on each other. So solidarity and this radical dependency that I keep thinking about and keep seeing everywhere, is about life, and living, and living together, and living together in rather beautiful ways…And it’s possible, it’s really possible and not in a romanticised way. But in a material, deliberate, consciousness exploding way, it’s possible…

Aizuddin Mohamed Anuar is a DPhil in Education student and Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford. Within the field of comparative and international education, his research interests include education and inter/national development, postcolonialism, rural education and the politics of knowledge production. He tweets @aizuddin_anuar.



[1] This proverb, which literally translates to “as elephants quarrel, the mousedeer dies in between” hints at the current predicament where the mighty politicians bicker at the top, the people underfoot slowly die.