A white political mess

Acep Iwan Saidi
Bandung Institute of Technology (Institut Teknologi Bandung – “ITB”)’s Semiotics Expert

IO – The instruction delivered by incumbent Joko Widodo to his supporters in various campaigns to wear white garments on elections day (17/04/19) causes new problems. It will set a bad precedent for our democracy, as the voting public is being “forced” to show their choice before they actually cast their vote. The solemn principle of Direct, Public, Free, and Confidential (Langsung Umum Bebas, dan RAHASIA – “Luber”) is now violated. This in turn will cause dissent among the people.

On the other hand, this request might prove to be a boomerang for Jokowi himself. It is quite possible for somebody to wear white but not to show their support, rather fooling everyone else into thinking so.

We must acknowledge that “white” clothing is more than just the “symbol” or “identity” of Jokowi. This color contains its own semiotic perspective. In Pierce’s semiotic reading, “white” is a marker of firstness. It is a qualisign, something that has the potential of becoming a sign, but it is not yet the sign itself. It will turn into a sign that points to a specific referent (sinsign) when it has fixed a relation with another element, or when it has made a specific configuration. It would really be a real sign (legisign) when it is logically placed in a specific context or argument.

In an Islamic context, for example, the color “white” has a meaning as a color for clothing (many hadiths or sayings of the Prophet explains this). However, in the context of Indonesian culture, there is a higher specificity in the design. A piece of white clothing is considered to be Islamic when it is designed as a baju koko,[1] for example. A simple white shirt would not be immediately thought of as something “Islami”. In fact, the idea of the “white shirt” is related to European clothing – or at least, something non-Islamic.

What about “Jokowi white”? A white shirt would only be considered to designate “Jokowi style” if its sleeves are rolled up halfway, it is not inserted into the trousers, and worn with a black cloth trousers or blue jeans. Most other types of white clothing in Indonesia have a neutral connotation.

What about white koko, is it identified as “Ma’ruf Amin’s” clothes? Not really. Ma’ruf Amin’s Islamic style is derived from the style affected by the Indonesian Islamic organization, the Nahdatul Ulama (“Ulema’s Revival”). This style usually combines black peci (Indonesian traditional head cap), sarong, and turban (usually green). This style is a unique Islamic fashion style from the Nusantara (“Archipelago”). Styles otherwise than this are “outside” of Amin’s political reach, or by extension, Presidential Candidate Pair 01’s.

If a koko is combined with white skull cap, which is commonly used by hajj pilgrims, for example, it would no longer belong to Presidential Candidate Pair 01, but to PCP 02 instead. Look at the fashion worn by the ulema and santri (Islamic boarder scholars) at the 212 Events. They generally wear white skull caps, not black pecis, while a few actually wear green turbans (as there were quite a few 212 activists who came from NU). Quite a few of them actually wear gamis to match (the Arabic one-piece robe or thawb).[2] “Putihkan Monas” (“paint the National Monument white”) is a 212 metaphor, one whose syntax is based on the visualization of white koko worn together with white skullcap (no matter the style).

Therefore, we cannot simplify “white clothing” as something to identify either Presidential Candidate 01 Jokowi or Presidential Candidate 02 Prabowo. Once again, the complexity behind the associated meaning can boomerang against Jokowi on voting day. Therefore, we need to admit that this request is actually unnecessary. It is too naïve – or perhaps, Presidential Candidate 01 is just feeling “anxious”, if you don’t want to say that he is “panicking”. After all, this request may well be a lexical sign of the wish to know who his voters are before they actually vote – a reflection of his impatience and fear of losing.


[1] A Chinese-styled shirt (the tui khim or changshan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changshan)) adapted as common wear for Muslim males in Indonesia (https://www.liputan6.com/ramadan/read/2266641/ingin-tahu-begini-asal-usul-baju-koko-di-indonesia)
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thawb