Kita jaga kita.” We take care of each other.

This phrase has come to carry a lot of meaning to Malaysians. Now more than two years into the pandemic, times continue to be tough for many of us. But this deadly virus is not the only one to blame; the December 2021 flash floods that hit eight states and left at least 54 dead have been truly catastrophic, causing unimaginable heartache to those affected.

Nevertheless, there is something immensely important to note about Malaysians: the greater the disaster, the stronger the “kita jaga kita” spirit. The tragedies that have befallen us have brought out the best in us too, and this was particularly evident in the aftermath of the floods late last year.

People from all corners of the country stepped up to volunteer their time, energy and resources to help the victims. Inspiring heroes like Azwan Omar (or Abang Viva) emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and together with others quickly raised funds, coordinated rescue efforts and distributed food, medical and other essential supplies.

However, the warmth of these feel-good stories of kindness and goodwill can only last so long, and it is time we take a closer look at the idea of volunteerism in Malaysia.

The Department of Statistics reported last year that Malaysia’s volunteer participation rate lies below the international average of 3%. The Malaysian Humanitarian Foundation hopes to up this figure to 5% by 2030, and there have been some headway in recent years.

More than 400 people are currently volunteering with UNHCR Malaysia, while hundreds more have also volunteered at Covid-19 vaccination centres. Others are helping out at soup kitchens, crisis support or animal welfare centres. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, young people are using social media to initiate grassroots initiatives too.

These sound wonderful, but author and social activist Simone Galimberti thinks that volunteerism should not be confined to solving short-term problems. After all, anything based on freely giving time, skills, and knowledge can be defined as volunteerism.

The pandemic and floods have been an eye-opener to all, with many opening up their hearts and wallets to others. But volunteerism should not replace government action, and many would agree with Galimberti that Malaysia needs more responsive and progressive social policies.

Civic engagement must now be prioritised, and better awareness initiatives are needed beyond compulsory university courses like “Community Service” or “Service Learning”. After all, people must first understand if they are to be inspired to become more engaged and committed.

So, how do we get there?

MERCY Malaysia founder Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood was spot-on when she said in 2020 that there is a need to work together, plan together, and improve collaboration and understanding. Meanwhile, finance minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz explained last November that the 2022 Budget takes into consideration measures to help empower local communities served by civil society organisations.

Through the PRIHATIN package, there are now grants to support projects that improve the quality of life and socio-economic resilience of the B40 communities, including children, refugees, orang asli, the ageing community, and the homeless.

On the rocky path to healing, means and finances are surely necessary, but the nation needs everyone to play a part. And if we all learn to lend a hand, there’s a chance the common good would be an achievable goal for Malaysia.