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Winnie the ‘Penipu’

An elderly beggar who wore a tattered Winnie the Pooh costume has been deemed a scammer following reports that he was pocketing Rp.500,000 daily and lived in a mansion with seven wives. But as usual, that’s not quite the full story.

Once again, ’tis the season for giving alms – if you’re a devout Muslim keen on scoring points to get into Heaven. Just remember that there are plenty of confidence tricksters (penipu in Indonesian) ready to help you purchase penance.

The East Java regency of Sidoarjo is infamous for two reasons: the 1993 rape, torture and murder of a labour rights activist, Marsinah, whose killers have never been brought to justice; and the ongoing mudflow disaster that started in 2006 when a company linked to tycoon Aburizal Bakrie neglected to use a protective casing when drilling a natural gas well.

Sidoarjo was back in the headlines recently over the story of the geriatric beggar, Suwadi, who attracted attention by wearing a shabby Winnie the Pooh costume. He rarely wore the bear head, but instead used it as his begging bowl. He wanted people to see that he was an old man. An old, stooping, crippled man with a mournful expression.

Suwadi shuffled pathetically along the street outside Sidoarjo’s Lippo Mall, dragging his right leg, while his right arm and hand were bent awkwardly. If anyone asked, he told them he had suffered a debilitating stroke two years ago. He had been begging for about one year.

His wretched appearance eventually caught the attention of the Voice of Surabaya radio station, which on June 14 ran a news item about him.

The sob story described how Suwadi lived all alone but “still worked by entertaining children with his ragged Winnie the Pooh costume”.

Sympathy began pouring in after the article and photos were posted on the radio station’s E100 Facebook page. The story quickly received over 32,000 ‘Likes’, thousands of ‘Shares’ and more than a thousand comments oozing with compassion, pity, admiration and religious platitudes. Some commenters boasted of how they had helped him. Further details of Suwadi’s wretched life emerged online. He lived somewhere in the town of Gresik but often had to sleep rough when he had failed to collect enough money for a bus fare home.

The social media attention prompted Sidoarjo Social Affairs and Manpower Office to investigate whether the old man was ill and being exploited by relatives or a begging mafia. After officers brought him in for questioning and a health check, he confessed that he lived not in Gresik but in Mojokerto. He also provided additional revelations about his life, which were passed on to the media. The following day, Suwadi made national headlines, with reports declaring the 75-year-old had built himself a luxury mansion with the proceeds of his begging, and that he had accumulated seven wives and a couple of motorcycles, including a Yamaha V-Ixion worth about Rp.20 million.

Newspapers said Suwadi had been collecting at least Rp.500,000 ($38) a day and “working” only four days a week, which meant he was making about Rp.8 million a month. Not bad when the minimum wage for Sidoarjo regency is Rp.2.7 million.

Husni Tamrin, head of the Social Affairs Office, said Suwadi was in good health and had never suffered a stroke. The limp and crippled appearance were just an act to attract more sympathy. The old man had five adult children, all of them living independently.

But did he really have seven wives? He was indeed up to wife number seven, but the previous six were no longer with him, having been divorced over the years. And was he living in an opulent mansion? No, just in a nice house that had cost him Rp.70 million to renovate.

When Suwadi was detained, a woman rushed to the Social Affairs Office to demand his release. She was carrying a bag containing another novelty costume. She initially claimed to be his daughter. Suwadi told officials she was his seventh wife, Karsih.

She said they collected about only Rp.150,000 to Rp.160,000 a day, although on weekends they could receive Rp.200,000 to 250,000 when the roads were more crowded.

The couple had Rp.268,000 on them when they were questioned. Officers sent the pair to the Social Affairs Office in Mojokerto, where they signed an agreement promising to stop begging. To demonstrate their sincerity, they burned the Winnie the Pooh costume and Karsih’s costume before being released. The two were then picked up by their son, Muadi.

A few days later, reporters tracked down Suwadi’s house, located by some rice fields. Muadi sent Suwadi out to perform his evening prayers and told reporters to stop bothering his father because of his advanced age. He said the house was evidently not luxurious and claimed he had built it himself.

Social media commenters had a lot to say about the story, but there were few calls for Indonesia to improve its taxation and social security systems. The country does have a state-run pension scheme, called Jamsostek, which administers provident funds for private employees. Unfortunately it has been tainted by corruption scandals in the past. A former Australian Federal Police officer who provided security services on Christmas Island when it functioned as a casino for corrupt Indonesians, recalls one high roller who did not mind losing hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables because he had a senior position in Jamsostek.

Even if Indonesia did improve its social safety net, people would continue to beg because it’s easy money in a country where religion is compulsory.

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan brings an influx of beggars to Indonesian cities, especially around busy traffic lights and mosques. Begging is illegal, so panhandlers risk being arrested, though they are generally just briefly detained by public order officials and sent home with stern warnings not to return.

Raids against beggars have already commenced in dozens of cities. On Madura Island, east of Java, Social Affairs official Ahmad Zubaidi said the raids are necessary because a local government program to help beggars become independent entrepreneurs had failed. He said people become beggars not because of extreme economic hardship but because they view begging as easy and lucrative work. He said beggars in the past were given financial assistance and goats to become livestock breeders, but they had simply sold the goats and resumed begging.

Begging mafias often use children to pull at the heartstrings of people. The Indonesian Commission on Child Protection has urged schools, the Education Ministry and parents to discourage children from begging independently or being recruited by begging gangs. Commission official Susanto said Indonesia should focus on developing a young generation that is creative and innovative, rather than a generation looking for handouts.

A few publications have been publishing lists of tips to help Muslims avoid giving to potentially dubious charities or bogus beggars. Such lists advise people to avoid just about all types of beggars, from seemingly pregnant women to the disabled, and to instead donate to reputable charities. Even then, you may be better off giving to someone who never has their hand out, such as a scavenger. Otherwise, you’ll just perpetuate the begging business.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.


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