Yesterday (Apr 9, 2020) was the second day of the call for donations for the needy, whom I have been able to identify via family members of my clients / ex-clients, who are beneficiaries of the National Legal Aid Foundation (Yayasan Bantuan Guaman Kebangsaan). The day before, in the morning, I was in court to check out situations since there are volunteers doing YBGK there.

Upon returning home, I had some time to browse through my WhatApp contacts’ statuses, just to see what others have been up to. Some were funny, mostly ranted about domestic wars, and some discovered treachery in their untainted love lives, until now that it.

But, something caught my attention. It was a status from someone I’ve dealt with extensively throughout her male relative’s trial in court. And during the tenure of the trial,  which went on for over two years, she had been taking care of his children.

Anyway, the status went something like this: “Dear God, how am I going to survive if this continues on?” And then I saw another one that read: “Can anyone help me, my kids are not able to eat properly, I’ve run out of funds.”

I quickly chatted with some of them, the ones I know personally as female “correspondents” to our YGBK clients, including the contacts that shared their statuses earlier. They, also, told me they needed funds to buy foodstuff like rice, eggs and cooking oil. And the one with kids said she ran out milk formula for her children.

Realising there may be more out there who share the same predicament, I just casually posted a status that goes “if anyone needs help, PM me”. True enough, in just less than an hour, I had a few people PM-ing me.

This probably may not be the best way to find out people’s needs, but they’d have to be really desperate to lie. I had my doubts initially: how do I know if they’re genuine? and if I’m raising funds, I’m not doing it in vain?

So, I spoke to one of the fellows about my concerns, and what she told me, changed me. She said in such an emergency situation, just give, they are too desperate and would not dare to lie. She didn’t actually give me a solution, but I figured it should be: because they’re desperate, they deserve the fund.

Now, someone posted another disturbing question, “what if they use it to buy ice?” No, not the ones that you can serve to a kid in a glass. But speed, crank, batu, syabu, crystal. That person added “biar lah kalau ada virus bah, kalau ketagih sudah, tiada yang boleh stop tu.” That’s true also, because it is an addiction.

These two conflicting statements played heavily in my head at first, until a few help started pouring in, friends started sending me receipts of their purchases and photos of their donations. Seeing the amount of help just washed away my doubts. There are Good Samaritans still out there, who are willing to help, regardless of whether the request is genuine or otherwise.

Some donation recipients showed me the little money they had in the bank, and pledged to send me pictures of how they spent the cash received. But I said it’s ok, because I believe they have their own needs to satisfy too, like ice cream or cigarettes.

My point is, I feel like we’re so judgmental when it comes to ice cream and cigarettes and all those little cravings we have. So I stopped asking for proof of purchases if their bank account balance is only a few Ringgits left.

Come on, what am I, the basic necessities nazi? Can we not just trust them to know what’s best for them?

I mean, if there’s anything that I’ve learned from this whole pandemic is that we’re not in control. I can’t even tell you when I’ll die or if this virus is going to be the death of me. Neither can you. We think we’re in control when something invisible like this Covid-19 virus is making everyone stay at home against our will. Imagine that? In control? Please. We’re all vulnerable bah.

We have to learn to accept that we are powerless to a big extent. We are only given the power to choose how we respond to the stimulus. I mean general external stimulus in our lives, not the trillions of government stimulus.

Anyway, you are free to be that person who doubts humanity and chooses not to help because of a remote chance that someone might buy ice with the funds they received (or abuse it anyhow). Or you can choose to be with the majority of us who worry about others and the fate of their babies. I like one Malay proverb that goes “cubit paha kanan, paha kiri terasa juga.” It’s my new motto.

Watching people pay it forward

Day 3: And that’s today… I don’t know how many more will come to me for help. However, the first few who got the funds, like a domino effect, have started to help their neighbours and extended families in other parts of Sabah already.

I’m seeing people step up and helping their neighbours EVEN THOUGH THEY were at first to suffer in silence themselves. I’m seeing people who challenged my first impressions of them as they volunteer to help reach out to the single mothers around their neighbourhood, and in return, I think it’s only fair for me to give them some token for gas and their time.

While I am not always sure if I am doing the right thing, I do believe in doing good, and taught myself that a lot of it is me trusting the process.

In the process, I’m also shown the recipients’ kindness too: they refused for more help than what is necessary, even when they know the funds they received is not enough for their family. I think they just want us to help more people.

I know that when people minta tolong, kau tolong saja lah sebab the THOUGHT OF ASKING for help is already an uphill task itself. Apa lagi kalau betul-betul minta bantuan tu. Sekarang tidak apa sebab tengah emergency, so semua orang berani minta. Tapi masa biasa, siapa berani jadi vulnerable kan?

People who don’t know the feeling of ‘segan meminta’ are only that way because they have repressed the memory of such feeling, because to feel that way is so bad–”di mana saya mahu letak maruah saya?” It’s impossible to have never felt that way, when your dignity is at stake for one reason, or another. We’re all the same bah. Darah sama merah. Rambut sama hitam, unless you dye them.

So, as long as there are willing individuals who come to join in doing good deeds, or those who contacted me for help, rest assured, I’ll continue to do this. I have no idea what and where this will lead to, or morph into, but it has only been two days, and already I have  some really memorable anecdotes for keeps. Some made me cry, others made me laugh. Maybe I’ll save and share those anecdotes for another day. InshaaAllah.

One thing is for sure—thanks to you—many people out there, whose names you will never know, whose faces you will never come across, whose slum houses you’ll never be able visit, have smiles on their faces because they know deep down,  God has sent an angel in the form of you to watch over them and their families. Thanks to you, they can happily stare deep into the cooking pots and see the pantry stocked up for at least a couple of weeks.

For now, I thank everyone who has contributed to these families and I hope that you haven’t given up on kindness. One morning we all will wake up and realise that money, no matter how much, even if the wealthiest nations were to pool their resources together, will never be enough (nor able to) protect us from the virus.

A future where we care about others

I hear people say, “I hope things will go back to being normal soon”. But I shudder to think about going back to being normal. Why would I want to go back to the norms? One where we are all only a cog in the machinery of a nation’s creation of its wealth?

Before this, governments have been calling on the people to ‘sacrifice’ their own desires to trade, go out and be ‘productive’ for the good of others. But just suddenly, the scenario changed, instead staying home is profitable to the nation. If this experience doesn’t change the way we embody modern life, then maybe we do deserve a protracted pandemic, until we get that – it’s not always about us, it’s also about others. That’s the new reality of post Covid-19, which I hope to see when all things are over and done with.

Call me crazy, but it’s hard not to see a future where we are all about the “others”. After all, look around and you will see that we’re all staying home mostly because of the “others”: the frontliners and the patients. We’re staying home because we don’t know if we have the virus and so to prevent from infecting others, we just have to stay put. This must be doing something to our collective consciousness.

Post Covid-19, all I want for the new normal is where people, regardless gender, class, identity, creed, looks, beliefs, age, physical or mental disability, genetic information, addictions, become ONE. One where people are stepping up for the lives of others, even contributing as little as RM1, although it might be their last money. And when I call out for help, anonymous people would continue to help me and help the needy, although they may not know me personally. One where people are truly the most important part of the nation.

The contributor Michelle Usman is a defense lawyer and co-chair of the Sabah Law Society’s Human Rights Committee. She is also part of the Malaysian Acumen Fellows. She has been actively reaching out to prisoners and underprivileged families during this Movement Control Order (MCO) period. Her statement here has been edited for clarity.