The white flag of (mental) strength, not surrender

When faced with mental, financial or physical stress, Malaysians are able to rise above – with a little help.

“The scented candle was a nice touch,” said Maryam (not her real name).

“The counsellors incorporate music as well as colour therapy into the counselling sessions. They try to make you feel welcomed and relaxed. Things have certainly changed in the last 10 years”.

Maryam, who works in government, has come a long way since 2011 when she found herself standing at the 14th floor ledge of her office building, contemplating suicide.

Feeling the need to talk to her mother “one last time”, her mother’s words dissuaded her from committing suicide. Her colleagues arrived on time.

Maryam was hospitalised for a week.

Her mental challenges started at work, where Maryam was bullied by some seniors for being outspoken and labeled as rebellious. They would give her impossible-to-complete tasks, which led to self-esteem issues. “Voices started appearing in my head. From inaudible whispers, they began telling me that I’m useless and unable to do even a simple job”.

Maryam’s close shave with death led to an organisational shake-up. She credits her bosses for being supportive, alongside her friends and family.

Despite the initial challenges, Maryam has been in the government for over 15 years now, having served across four ministries. Her most recent stint was overseeing Covid-19 relief efforts. She is glad that there is greater mental health awareness within the government and that “The Ministry’s counsellors are proactive in reaching out to their fellow civil servants”.

A cat lover (like me), Maryam enjoys doing charity work, having organised many ‘free markets’ since 2015. She also writes words of encouragement on social media and shares her experiences so that it could help others.

“I find my sense of purpose by giving others purpose”.

Humanity, Dignity & Creating Mental Well-Being Safe Spaces

A few months ago, I received news that international students at a local university were protesting alleged mistreatment by the management.

“The students were not allowed to leave campus grounds for a few months – even to receive money sent by their families”, said Ahmad (not his real name), from Central Asia.

The university was worried about Covid-19 infections, but the rules did not apply to local students (who were allowed to return to their respective hometowns and return to campus).

Somehow, the international students were deemed “high risk”.

Feeling discriminated against, marginalised and isolated, mental health issues began cropping up. “A petition with over 200 signatures was ignored. Some students were contemplating filing a lawsuit”, shared Ahmad, himself distressed.

Unfortunately, rather than engaging, the police were called in to deal with the protesters.

Eventually, a settlement was reached. The students were allowed to leave campus within a fixed timeframe to purchase necessities. Nevertheless, the old rules returned when MCO 3.0 was announced in January. The lack of clear communication led some of the international students to leave the country and pursue their studies elsewhere.

This incident raises the question: Could it have been handled differently by the university’s leadership?

The protest was not an act of rebellion, but rather, a cry for help. Their mental well-being could have been better supported and facilitated. Basic humanity should have prevailed with science and data to guide the decision-making process.

With a full lockdown once again in place, creating these safe mental health spaces is so important. Leaders must step out of their hallowed-offices and go to the ground to understand the challenges their students (or staff) are facing.

Culture, Consistency & Mental Health Training

About two years ago, Fara (not her real name) was studying psychology in college.

She applied for a deferment due to arising mental health issues. Despite having her psychiatrist’s letter, her lecturers doubted the authenticity of the diagnosis and insisted on interviewing her separately.

“If it were a physical ailment, like a fever or flu, they would not have probed further. The irony is that the psychology department lecturers were the ones causing further mental health distress”.

Fara’s experience is a reminder that while mental health awareness training is important, organisational cultural acceptance is, too. As society becomes more conscious of mental health concerns and more people start seeking help, there is a need to ensure that genuine cases are taken seriously while abuse is curbed.

Leadership, Vulnerability and Change

While they say work-from-home is part of a ‘new normal’, in reality, there is nothing really ‘normal’ due to Covid-19. Rather, many challenges arise such as the need for childcare support (including schooling), ensuring good Internet connection and managing household stresses.

Leaders, and leading by example, play a very important role here.

A Harvard Business Review study found that “being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own”.

Employees whose managers were not good at communicating were 23% more likely to experience mental health decline since the Covid-19 outbreak.

Leaders must also share good habits such as going for walks and taking breaks. Sharing flexibility practices such as working at night and resting in the mornings (to enable children to focus on school, for example) helps reduce stress and realigns expectations.

Even acknowledging instances where deliverables can slide and prioritising work goes a long way in sustaining productivity, reducing stigma and increasing happiness levels.

The White Flag of Strength, Not Surrender

Malaysians are a proud bunch. Even in times of need, we prefer to say that “everything is ok” to avoid feeling embarrassed or give the impression that we cannot care for ourselves.

But these are tough times, and no doubt, many are at a breaking point – mentally, financially and physically.

The Health director-general recently shared that suicide cases are on the rise. As of March 2021, the figure stood at 336 suicides (about four cases daily). The entirety of 2020 recorded 631 cases.

The recent #BenderaPutih (White Flag) movement has seen Malaysians from all walks of life pledge to help those in need. Anyone needing assistance just has to put up a white ‘flag’ in front of their house as the signal.

Many positive stories of neighbours helping their neighbours, or strangers online have appeared. The #KitaJagaKita (we care for each other) spirit is strong and alive.

Waving a white flag is historically seen as a sign of surrender, but in Malaysia, it is our sign of strength.

Those suffering from problems can reach out to: Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service (03-2935 9935 or 014-322 3392); Talian Kasih (15999 or WhatsApp 019-261 5999); Jakim’s Family, Social and Community care centre (WhatsApp 0111-959 8214); and Befrienders Kuala Lumpur (03-7627 2929 or a full list of numbers and operating hours).

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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at


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