I once had a quarrel with a Dutch friend who downgraded Indonesia as "a nation of stupid people." I was really upset when he said, "No Nobel Prize winner will ever come from Indonesia, because your people have very low IQ [levels]." If I had met him in Indonesia and not abroad, I would probably have taught him a bitter lesson.
It took me years before I realized that he was not totally wrong, being a medical doctor. And the reason is scientific. According to Agus Pakpahan, executive director of the Indonesian Sugar Association (AGI), Indonesians' average intelligence quotient is only 87 and the average body height is only 158 centimeters, because of excessive consumption of sugar, which triggers degenerative diseases.
Upon learning of Pakpahan's remarks, presented recently at the Assessment Team of the Indonesian Senate, known as "Team 10," I insisted that he show scientific evidence to prove his theory.
Pakpahan pointed to the minister of health's Decree Number 30/2013 and Decree Number 41/2014, which state very clearly that the ministry's approved level of sugar intake for every citizen is only 27 grams per day, far below the level decreed by the cabinet's economic team.
Those making the policy are the ministers of agriculture, trade, industry, state-owned enterprises, finance, and social affairs, who meet every five or six months in what is called Rakortas, or a limited coordination meeting, led by the coordinating minister of the economy. The health minister is not in the team.
For this year, they have approved a national sugar stock of 5.7 million tons. Indonesia's domestic production of sugar is not more than 2.5 million tons, so some 3.5 million tons must be imported, mainly from Thailand, which sells 30 percent of its sugar output to the archipelago.
But putting the national sugar demand at 5.7 million tons per annum means encouraging citizens to consume an average of 62 grams of sugar per day to risk contracting lethal diseases as mentioned in the health minister's decrees.
The two decrees explain that per capita daily intake of 62 grams of sugar per day is detrimental to a person's health, because it is far above the safe level of 27 grams and could multiply the risks of cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, if the consumption pattern lasts a long time.
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, one in every four women in Indonesia aged 50-80 years has a very high risk of catching this bone disease, while the prevalence in the male population is 1:16.
Meanwhile, in 2013 up to 8.5 million Indonesians suffered from diabetes. In 2014 the figure rose to 9.1 million and by 2035 it is predicted that a total of 14.1 million will have caught this disease, according to Achmad Rudjianto, chairman of the Indonesian Society for Endocrinology.
Indonesia's cancer prevalence is 1.4 for every 1,000 people, meaning 18.2 million sufferers nationwide. Excessive sugar consumption is one of the main factors to blame for this.
The society is not being educated to consume sugar proportionally, according to health standards. Sugar imports will continue to soar against declining local production capacity as sugar cane growers scream loudly about the impact of climate change and a tragic lack of government attention to the need for improving irrigation infrastructure.
As a result, farmers' production costs far exceed their selling price and in some areas such as Lampung, in the southern part of Sumatra, frustrated farmers have either destroyed or abandoned their sugar plantations and grown secondary crops instead, causing a further lack of raw material for state-owned sugar factories to process.
In East Java, a more tragic story has been reported by Arum Sabil, chairman of the Association of Sugar Cane Growers (Aptri). Complaining to the Senate's assessment team, he revealed that imported sugar was flooding East Java "because it is a sugar producing province."
Sabil argues that the government has intentionally allowed either importers or a mafia to destroy local production capacity by flooding the province with imported sugar. But who are these importers and why can't such an unfair practice be stopped?
Indonesia recognizes three kinds of sugar — crystal white sugar, produced locally from raw material supplied by sugar cane growers; refined sugar made from imported raw sugar and officially destined for food and beverages industries; and added sugar from raw materials other than cane.
Crystal white sugar is for household use. It is produced by 51 state-owned enterprises and a few other private companies. When there is a market shortage of this kind of sugar, state procurement agency Bulog floods the market with its stock to bring down retail prices.
But given the fact that there is no state-owned factory that can refine raw sugar, sugar for food and beverage industries must be imported from abroad by 16 private companies, which are popularly known in local sugar trading as "11 dragons" and "five samurais."
The 11 dragons are the companies Angels Produk, Jawa Manis Rafinasi, Sentra Usahatama Jaya, Permata Dunia Sukses Usaha, Dharmapala Usaha, Sukses, Sugar Labinta, Duta Sugar Internasional, Makasar Tene, Berkah Manis Makmur, Andalan/Fornendo, and Medan Sugar Industri.
The five samurais are Adikarya Gemilang, Kebun Tebu Mas, Industri Gula Nusantara, Gendhis Multi Manis and Pabrik Gula Gorontalo, according to the Aptri chairman.
The government relies entirely on them to produce refined sugar, collecting taxes in the process, but losing authority and sovereignty over its production and market domination. As a result, oversupply of refined sugar has caused permeation into the domestic market in disguised forms to meet sugar shortages in some areas, and nobody knows what to do, even though this is against the rules.
One can only wait to see millions more Indonesians fall victim to various lethal diseases in coming decades, unless the health minister's decrees are implemented faithfully.
But implementation of these decrees would seriously erode the sugar mafia's income. This prompts speculation that the mafia is so powerful that it does not want to see the health minister included in the cabinet team that formulates sugar supply and demand policy. Is that really so?
According to agricultural economist Nizwar Syafa'at, who sits on the board of the AGI, a lack of comprehensive law on sugar trading from upstream to downstream levels is to blame for unfair practices now taking place.
Even Bulog is using the facilities of the dragons and samurais to refine imported raw sugar to become refined crystal sugar for distribution.
But here's a bigger story: the lack of government control over sugar trading has enabled rent-seekers to accumulate huge sums of money abroad. Aptri researchers have tracked down a secret bank account in Singapore containing Rp 65 billion ($5 million), which belongs to the retired boss of an Indonesian state-owned enterprise.
This money, Sabil believes, is kickbacks from the 100,000-ton sugar trade in Indonesia. He says President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's office and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) have known this for a long time and no action has been taken so far.
So, while sugar imports continue along with rising domestic consumption to trigger lethal diseases, mafias are outsmarting a powerless government to accumulate wealth for themselves. So sweet is the business; so bitter the consequences for millions of people across the country.
Pitan Daslani is an expert on foreign affairs at the Indonesian Senate and chief drafter for Team 10. He was formerly a journalist for the Jakarta Post, Jakarta Globe, Radio Netherlands, Radio Deutsche Welle and Yomiuri Shimbun.