Up Yours: Jempol

By N. Mark Castro

Jempol is the largest district in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan. The district borders another Malaysian state of Pahang to the northeast. Bahau is the principal town in Jempol.

Jempol is also the meeting point of Muar and Serting River, which played an important transportation role in ancient times. Known historically as Desa Penarikan, it connected trade posts west of the Malay Peninsula with population centers in the east coast and vice versa.

But when you travel a bit further towards Indonesia, you’ll find that the very same word connotes a different meaning.

What’s quite unique about Jempol (Thumbs-Up) is it’s unwritten code of:

  1. Tolerance
  2. Subservience
  3. Accommodation
  4. Approval

Just to name a few.

To give you a clear example, if you’re driving along the Central Business District of Jakarta and another speeding car just decided to cut you off to enter your lane, you could kill him. But if he rolls down his window and puts out his fingers with a Jempol (Thumbs Up) sign, then you’ll have to forgive him, tolerate him, understand him, yield to him, and that all is well again.

This probably accounts for the major accidents or traffic in Indonesia except that it’s not recorded in any way.

Police: So who did what?

Driver 1: He did! (pointing a finger at Driver 2)

Driver 2: No, I did not! I gave the Jempol sign!

Police: You did?

Driver 1: You did?

Driver 2: Yes!

Police: He gave the Jempol sign.

Driver 1: I didn’t notice. I’m sorry! I’m sorry!

Driver 2: It’s OK. Next time look for my Jempol sign.

Police: Yes, you should. (looking at Driver 1 with disappointment.)

Ok, I’m not saying that the incident is factual or true. I’m sure there are other reasons why cops and drivers are stupid, but I hope it gives you an Asian picture as to how unique Jempol is obeyed in Indonesia. It’s the most unique unspoken, non-verbal form of communication that crosses borders, religion, race, and social status. Not even politicians are spared.

President Susilo Bambang Yudyohono

And even the former governor of Jakarta, Fauzi Bowo, had to submit to this sign.

Governor Fauzi Bowo

But I think that one of the reasons Governor Fauzi “Foke” Bowo lost in the recent gubernatorial elections in Jakarta wasn’t so much that he was inefficient at work, or that he catered to the conservative left, or even his unappealing mustache. Or that governor-elect Jokowi Widodo is good.

I think there is a far worse sin he committed that made him lose his position, this is it:

Foke Me With A Finger

No, let me disabuse you of your misinterpretation that former governor Fauzi “Foke” Bowo lost the elections because of his public display of the middle finger. In his misguided attempt to mingle with some youth during an event at Bung Karno Stadium in Central Jakarta, he merely copied the gestures made of those kids around him. In the picture, Fauzi was seen raising his middle finger as he stood between a girl, also raising her middle finger, and a boy, who raised his thumb. I, too, would have raised my thumb or Jempoled on that.

What did you expect? Kids.

But I personally think that what did him in, what the public — global or local — could not forgive him for, is not that he lied about it, but that he said, and I quote:

“I don’t understand those kinds of things. I didn’t understand until now. Do all band members [make this gesture]?

If you intend to keep your job in one of the largest and most dynamic cities in the world, if you want to display not just your political acumen but your deep social understanding as well, the one thing you cannot do is go around telling people that you do not know what the middle finger means.

It’s the one gesture in the world that majority of the people know, regardless of the variations it may so have in certain cultures. It’s the one gesture in the world that is globally understood long before social media and globalization happened.

It’s the one gesture in the world that you should know … especially if you want to govern one of the most unique and diverse cities in the world.

Not to know it and publicly declare it won’t make you appear holy.

Not to know it and publicly declare it simply shows how ignorant you are.

But I digress, however, it shows clearly how Jempol pervades in the country yet it isn’t limited to Indonesia alone..

Apparently, the Thumbs Up sign is nothing but a result of someone’s misunderstanding. Mankind is replete with history of sustained notions based on someone’s misunderstanding. For instance, what if the instructions to Catholic priests wasn’t “to be celibate from sexuality” but rather “to celebrate sexuality”?

Or that God has gender?

The Thumbs Up sign is no different. According to my hard target research, which basically involved my lifting of an entire FB passage from the smart author Suzanne Duque, the sign …

…refers to the Roman custom of spectators’ voting on the fate of wounded gladiators with their thumbs. You may think a gladiator would appreciate the crowd’s “thumbs up” (verso pollice), but exactly the opposite is true. Where we give thumbs up as a sign of approval, it meant death to its Roman recipient; much to the crowd’s delight.

These men once were horn-blowers and attendants 
At every municipal arena, known as trumpeters in every village. 
Now they present their own spectacles, and, to win applause, 
Kill whomever the mob gives the “thumbs up”.
Decimus Junius Juvenalis; a.k.a. Juvenal
(c. 55-140 A.D.), “Third Satire”

Thumbs down, signified “swords down,” which meant the loser was worth more to them alive than dead, and he was spared apparently so he could make up for his disgrace the next time he appeared in the arena. Keep this in mind the next time you give someone the “thumbs up” sign.

Our reverse interpretation of this custom apparently was the result of the work of the French artist Léon Gérôme who apparently understood the Latin verso (“turned”) to mean “turned down”, and therefore in his painting Pollice Verso (1873), he presents the death sentence with the thumbs-down gesture.

The painting became so popular that Gérôme’s mistake became the accepted interpretation and it is unlikely that it will ever be changed back to the meaning that it had with the Romans.

Scholars before Gérôme gave support to the view that “thumbs down” among the Romans, meant the hapless gladiator was to be spared, not slain.

The gesture meant “Throw your sword down”. A 1601 translation of Pliny equates the gesture with “assent” or “favor”, and John Dryden’s 1693 version of Juvenal’s Satires gives the thumb being bent back, not down, as the death signal.

So, in other words, we owe our understanding of the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down sign based on Gérôme’s misunderstanding. Or was he merely too focused on his masterpiece he failed to include it? And yes, Gérôme was a master at depicting enclosed space – and though the impression of Pollice Verso is of an open immensity, it, too, is an enclosed space.

The arena wall surrounding the combatants effectively closes off the picture (and any hope of escape), and the far distance in the upper left of the canvas is blocked by a mass of people.  To further emphasize that this is not open space, look at what Gérôme does with light: there are streaks of sunlight crossing the sand of the arena, and streaking up the wall and into the spectators.  If there are streaks of sunlight, there must be some obstruction overhead, casting the majority of the action in shadow.  What that obstruction is remains unknown – but look at what it does for Gérôme: he uses the light to create “arrows” pointing at the main action, and up at the people commenting on it.  Gérôme’s genius for composition is one of the many things that make him such a remarkable painter – so let’s look at some of the things he puts within his framework.

The gladiator stands above his vanquished foes, forming a tight triangle of action. (Note how a streak of sunlight rides up his arm and helmet.)  The fallen trident underscores the triangular shape that would’ve been somewhat mitigated by the outstretched arm of the victim.  With a few deft strokes, Gérôme manages to mix blood and sand … painting a red mud that is wonderfully visceral.

Next, look at the Emperor slightly to the left over the gladiator’s helmet.  Apparently he is above the drama occurring around him: his thumb is neither up nor down, indeed, it looks as if he is sampling some savory from the dish at his left.  The woman to the right of the gladiator’s helmet seems greatly distressed at the outcome … and who is that, leaning over her shoulder?  A friend?  Or a rival of the vanquished man?

Finally, look at the bloodthirsty Vestal Virgins, all dressed in white.  Essentially priestesses, they behave with disquieting abandon, more like harpies than women with the sacred duty of maintaining the flame at the House of Vesta in the Forum. It is one of the ugliest depictions of womanhood in the Victorian corpus, and it is somehow more disgusting than the violence at their feet.  (Have a moment, too, for the faces of the crowd one tier above the vestal virgins: lust, disdain and violence are etched on all of them.)

Other details richly ornament the picture: Gérôme has a sure hand in creating the cool feel of the marble walls, the highly ornate pillars and tapestries, and the decorative relief under the Emperor’s box.  A lesser painter would have blocked these in and filled them with dense color; Gérôme, instead, delineates each component with extensive detail.

Though a grim picture of violence, depravity and decadence, Pollice Verso is a masterpiece, and one of Gérôme’s most accomplished pictures.  It is clear to see the influence Gérôme has had on our conception of the ancient world, and his work echoes through the vision of filmmakers as diverse as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Ridley Scott.

But, that’s it. There’s your Art Review right there.

In the Philippines, back in the 90s, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Fidel V. Ramos succesffuly launched his political campaign and presidential ambitions with the Thumbs Up sign.

President Fidel V. Ramos

This became his trademark sign for the entire duration of his presidency. Naturally, if you wanted a photo op with the former president, you have got to follow their understanding of it.

Former President of the Republic of the Philippines Fidel V. Ramos and Permanent Ambassador to ASEAN Wilfrido Villacorta

Who cares? It looks great on Facebook.


About Asmartrock

N. Mark Castro is the Southeast Asia Director of JUMP DIGITAL Asia, which is an internationally-awarded and fully integrated digital marketing agency with 5 out of 10 offices in the ASEAN region. He is also the Secretary General of the Philippine Business Club Indonesia, managing and assisting the traffic of investments between the Philippines and Indonesia. He shuttles between Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, and Australia. The views posted here are his own and do not in any way reflect the views of the companies he represents.

Posted on October 11, 2012, in General, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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