Jack Sim: flushing down the toilet taboo

Mr. Jack Sim, or Toiletman, as he humorously introduces himself, founded the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001 after devoting several years and a lot of personal resources designing and setting it up.

Christina Dueñas - Water Knowledge and Communications Coordinator, ADB

After decades of being a successful entrepreneur in the construction business, Mr. Sim realized that the lack of adequate sanitation facilities accounts for much of the world’s social and health problems. WTO’s vision is to attain clean, safe, affordable, ecologically sound, and sustainable sanitation for everyone. Launched on November 19th 2001 at the inaugural World Toilet Summit and starting with just 15 member associations from Singapore, the WTO has evolved into an umbrella organization with members from 53 countries. It serves as a platform for knowledge sharing, public education, pooling of resources, and development of sanitation initiatives. Mr. Sim’s advocacy for better toilets and sanitation has earned him numerous awards, such as the World Environment Award in 2004 and the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2006. But his greatest satisfaction remains with the knowledge that WTO’s work is gradually breaking down the toilet taboo.


HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE JOKES OR EMBARRASSMENT THAT ACCOMPANY TALKS OF TOILETS? It is normal for people to laugh when we talk about toilets. When I was starting the WTO, I met Thailand’s Mr. Condom, Senator Mechai Viravaidya. His advice to me was “Laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When they laugh with you, they’ll listen to you.” I love it when I introduce myself as the Toiletman.


WHY DO YOU THINK THERE IS SUCH A TABOO ON TOILETS? If you ask someone how many times he eats each day, he knows. But if you ask him how many times he visits the toilet, it’ll be the first time in his life that he’s counting. From childhood, we were always told that respectable people do not to talk about toilets. We think sophisticated people are incapable of producing pungent smells. We deny that we have an intimate relationship with toilets. This learning must be undone. Like sex, toileting is natural. Once the taboo is broken, everyone will feel comfortable talking about it.


HAS BRINGING TOILET TALK IN THE OPEN CHANGED THE WAY PEOPLE PERCEIVE IT? Contrary to the notion that nobody talks about toilets openly, I discovered in the 8 years since I started WTO that the media actually loves talking about toilets and sanitation. The media mileage we’ve received to date already runs into hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of media time. And as the coverage continues, people are realizing that there is nothing wrong with talking about toilets. Talking leads to demand, and demand leads to supplies. The more we talk, the more we understand, and that is the first step to finding solutions.


WHAT ARE THE WTO’S OBJECTIVES AND THRUSTS? Our objective is that every person must enjoy safe and sustainable sanitation. Our programs cover advocacy, capacity building, and development projects. For advocacy, we organize major events such as the World Toilet Summits or World Sanitation Fund Forum. We also celebrate World Toilet Day every November 19th. In 2005, we launched the World Toilet College in Singapore. It offers courses that professionalize toilet cleaners, teach architects and managers to design ergonomic layouts, and train rural poor communities on bio-gas designs, urine-diversion, and other ecosan methods. We’re getting ready to open another toilet college in Indonesia. We also have development projects involving toilet construction for tsunami victims in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, rural schools in China, and more.


WITH MINIMAL ADMINISTRATIVE STRUCTURE AND NO MEMBERSHIP FEES FOR THE WTO, HOW DO YOU ENSURE THAT MEMBERS WORK TOWARD A COMMON AGENDA? When you don’t collect monies, things move very fast. WTO sells the belief that people deserve safe, affordable, and sustainable sanitation. And we do it by leveraging off the strengths of our partners. Asking for contribution of effort is easier than asking for contribution of monies. Since we don’t pay for out-sourced services, we always ask from the best, such as Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ashoka Social Financial Services, etc.


HOW DOES YOUR LEVERAGING OFF STRATEGY WORK? First, we focus on the mission—better sanitation for all—rather than owning projects or ideas. We look for partners and align their interests with other partners. Then we work hard but let the partners have the limelight. WTO has 6 staff members working as Secretariat but our role is more as facilitator rather than implementer. If you’re willing to play second-fiddle and work very hard as a partner, you add value to your partners. They get motivated and eventually take over the project, leaving us free to move on to the next big idea. This way, our resources become unlimited. We have new ideas and opportunities coming up all the time because we don’t have fixed plans. For instance, we met Miss Eunice Olsen, member of the Singapore parliament and former Miss Singapore/Universe, and she agreed to be the WTO Ambassador for the International Year of Sanitation 2008. We also met Prof. Heinz-Peter Mang, a world-renowned sanitation expert, and he is now the principal of our World Toilet College. Our World Toilet Summits are also hosted each year by a different country or NGO. We pay nothing. We are able to excite people because passion is very contagious.


WHAT CONCRETE RESULTS HAS WTO’S WORK BROUGHT TO DATE? Local governments usually use our events as tipping point to promote changes in mindsets, behavior, funding structures, or laws. In Singapore, we eliminated the ladies’ queue at the toilet by changing the Code of Practice for Environmental Health, which now calls for new buildings to have double the number of cubicles for women since the men have urinals. Beijing, which lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games because, among other things, of its lack of clean toilets, became actively involved in the WTO. The city spent US$100 million to build some 4,000 world class toilets for the 2008 Olympics. It even hosted the 2004 World Toilet Summit, where many local governments realized that toilets are the face of their cities. After the 2004 tsunami, WTO mobilized German sanitation experts to help in the reconstruction of Sri Lanka. Where the old homes had crude hole-in-the-ground toilets that caused groundwater contamination, our partners built new homes with much improved toilets.


HOW DO YOU CONVINCE POOR COMMUNITIES OR THOSE USED TO OPEN DEFECATION TO IMPROVE THEIR SANITATION FACILITIES? They may not yet see the need to demand for toilets, but this doesn’t mean the demand is not there. It’s simply muted. Once the toilet becomes a status symbol, it’ll drive demand. People are by nature “status seeking.” So, instead of building drab and dingy toilets, we need to make them colorful and vibrant. In a nutshell, we need to make toilets and sanitation sexy. And, of course, we need to treat the excreta. If it is dumped into rivers or other water bodies, we create even more problems.


HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CRUSADE FOR BETTER TOILETS? I worked as a merchant and manufacturer for decades but realized that no matter how much money I make, I won’t have any use for it when I die. I estimate to live for 80 years. So at age 40, I shifted to social work and focused on toilets. My dream is that every human being will have a safe and enjoyable toilet to use everywhere they go. This may not be possible in my lifetime but I must say that after 10 years of volunteering and social work, I see no better use of my remaining 30 years than pursuing this dream.


The Big Necessity


What miraculous achievement could allow us to prolong human life? Never mind antibiotics and stem cells: the answer lies in toilets! 80% of diseases affecting humans are caused by accidental contact with feces. Today in the world, 2.6 billion people live with the daily risk of infections. “Four people out of ten have no access to toilets or latrines: nothing”, explains British journalist Rose George in her fact-finding book “The Big Necessity” (Portobello Books, UK and Metropolitan Books, USA) that has led her from Great Britain to the coasts of Africa to the most remote corners of China, investigating the habits in performing bodily functions and waste disposal systems used by rich and poor. Every 15 seconds, a child dies of diarrhea usually caused by fecal-contaminated food or water. In the meantime, Western cities luxuriate in toilets with overly abundant jets of water, accessorized with music and even systems to measure blood pressure. Often, Japanese women use a device called a Flush Princess to mask the sounds of their bodily functions; while in China, millions of people happily use public toilets with no doors. At the beginning of the XIX century, the population of London increased rapidly, and the accumulation of excrements became impossible to handle. Cholera epidemics were killing 14,000 people a year. In 1858 the city had become so bad-smelling that people were vomiting in the streets. Ultimately, thanks to Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and to the municipality of Hamburg, large urban sewerage systems were built. “His sewers saved more lives than any other work of civil engineering”, comments Ms. George with pride. Today’s sewerage system uses up large quantities of two precious resources: energy and water. When water is scarce and expensive, the Western way of eliminating sewage does not make sense. Rose George synthesizes our system with ferocious sarcasm: “You take clean water, throw in some disgusting stuff and then spend millions to make it clean again”. The environmentalists that George met “speak about a future where pollution is avoided by separating urine from feces at the source”. Bathroom culture can change, and fast. Will the depletion of water reservoirs, together with a sewerage system that doesn’t know where to throw its waste anymore, take us back to an older and dirtier world? Or will we make more sustainable choices before the system collapses and starts throwing this dirt back at us? All these questions just go to prove how extraordinary Rose George’s book is. “The Big Necessity” investigates an apparently eternal and familiar taboo, making us understand that it is historically topical and very fascinating.



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