Indonesia Expat
Scams in the City

Pulling Your Leg

Some creative beggars are posing as amputees in order to elicit more sympathy. Meanwhile, one gang is kidnapping children and putting them to work as beggars.

The one-legged boy was a pitiful sight. As he grovelled along the sidewalk, his abject appearance tugged at the heartstrings of pedestrians, prompting some to loosen their purse-strings. But it was just an act for the sake of getting high.

Sandi (13) was detained by public order police in the West Sumatra capital of Padang on October 20 while begging outside a shopping mall. Upon examining the boy, officers discovered he had concealed his right leg simply by bending it upward before putting on his jeans.

Police said Sandi and others like him use their money from begging to buy solvent glue to sniff. These glues contain toluene, a pleasant-smelling liquid hydrocarbon which, when inhaled, creates a feeling of euphoria by dissolving the protective membrane around brain cells. Glue sniffing, known locally as ngelem, also reduces hunger pangs and can cause hallucinations, respiratory problems and organ failure.

Indonesia has declared war on drugs and is happy to shoot foreign drug mules, but there is no national campaign to stop street vendors from selling neurotoxic glues to street kids. Instead, it’s the recreational drug of choice for delinquents unable to afford illegal narcotics.

Sandi was handed over to the care of the Padang Social Office, where he is being detained with other miscreants for “rehabilitation”. Police said the saddest thing is that family members of such children never come to collect them from the authorities.

You Look Armless

Phony amputees also operate in the West Java city of Bandung. Ridwan Kamil, the city’s social media savvy mayor, on August 5 uploaded to his Facebook account a video of a man without any arms begging while prostrate on a sidewalk outside a shop. Public order officers then confront the man and remove his shirt, revealing he has two perfectly good arms.

Ridwan also uploaded to Instagram “before and after” photos of the man, who was identified only as Alexander. The first shows him in armless, begging mode. The second shows him with both arms out, enjoying a cigarette. “If you want to share some good fortune,” the mayor commented, “we advise giving to children’s homes or orphanages.”

The following day, the mayor uploaded a photo of his 12-year-old daughter, Camilla Azzahra, showing off a new smartphone which she bought with her own money on the strength of her part-time job selling Thai iced tea. The message is that hard work is a better way to earn money than begging. Being the daughter of a senior public official probably doesn’t hurt either.

Earlier this year, a YouTube video uploaded by a user named Yanuar Tampubolon showed a fake amputee beggar being exposed on a street in Sumatra. The man had his left leg tightly concealed under two pairs of jeans and two pairs of pants.

In South Jakarta, I used to encounter a genuinely one-legged man, who would crawl pathetically along the road at traffic lights, seemingly struggling to raise his torso and arm to reach the windows of stopped cars. He kept his prosthetic false leg hidden in a shrubbery on a median strip. He could walk quite adequately when he needed to, but it was better for business to appear as crippled and miserable as possible.

Then there are the beggars who feign blindness and those who scuttle about awkwardly on a crutch, as if they are partly crippled. There’s also the “sick grandmother” routine, in which a man pushes an elderly lady around on a trolley. She will invariably have a forlorn expression and be dressed in rags. Other methods of attracting sympathy include fake wounds and carrying a baby.

Buying Penance

Seasonal beggars descend upon Jakarta and other major Indonesian cities during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan. That’s because giving alms is a religious obligation, especially during the holy month. People of almost all religious persuasions feel they will score divine points if they give to charity. Opportunistic beggars are happy to sell them this feeling of charitable piety.

Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa has warned that many of the beggars who come to Jakarta during Ramadhan are not genuinely homeless or poor. Some families spend much of the month pretending to sleep in a pushcart, always located on a busy street, in order to attract compassion.

Arif Komady, arrested by municipal police officers while begging in the Central Kalimantan town of Sampit, was found to own a car and credit cards. Based in the South Kalimantan capital of Banjarmasin, he would drive his wife and children between major cities and towns, and have the entire family begging during Ramadhan.

In Jakarta, the Social Affairs Office of Kebayoran Baru district in October detained a beggar named Muklis (64) who was carrying Rp.90 million (US$6,900) in earnings from panhandling. He had regularly exchanged his collected coins and dilapidated banknotes for crisp money at banks.


Should we resent creative beggars? Yes. Sure there are plenty of people getting away with much more serious financial crimes, but begging is illegal in Indonesia, as is giving to beggars. Begging also exacerbates more serious crimes.

On October 9, two boys were kidnapped in the West Java city of Sukabumi. They were ordered to walk about 30 kilometres to the town of Cianjur, where they were put to work as beggars.

Sultan Alisahbana (10) and Mohammed Farhan (8) were playing near a railway line when a man calling himself Asep approached them. He allegedly offered them Rp.190,000 (US$14.50) and a trip to the seaside resort area of Pelabuhan Ratu. But instead, the boys were taken to Cianjur. They slept in a shack near the railway line. When they became thirsty and hungry, Asep sent them out to beg. He gave them false names and said that if anyone asked about their parents, they should say that Asep was their father.

On his fifth day of begging, Sultan was rescued on the evening of October 14 outside a mosque. Farhan was located on October 23 in West Bandung and returned to his parents. Police said Asep, who remains at large, is a known member of a child begging syndicate and is not shy to use violence.

In the East Kalimantan capital of Samarinda, authorities in late October urged people not to feel sorry for beggars, as giving them money only perpetuates a culture of laziness and encourages more people to become beggars. Local police said many of the city’s beggars are organized by a begging syndicate, which deploys them to strategic locations, such as cemeteries, houses of worship and restaurants, where they can best pester people for money.

Foreigners also find Indonesia rich grounds for begging. In September, police in East Java arrested a German tourist, Benjamin Holst, for begging. Holst has an enlarged right leg, which is a handy prop for begging and has helped him to travel the world. In August, three mainland Chinese tourists in Bali were deported for dressing up as monks and begging.

If you don’t know how to respond when a mournful beggar approaches your car window, the usual Indonesian method is to politely raise your right hand. Or you can attempt to brighten their day with a big cheerful smile. Remember, there are some great charities that need assistance, but giving money to beggars on the street only feeds your ego and encourages indolence.


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