SINGAPORE, OCTOBER 2006 – Mr Jack Sim is a very busy man. He was in Germany recently to open a new branch, then in Russia for a big conference. Ahead of him is an international meeting in Thailand, where he has arranged for officials from the World Bank and the United Nations to speak. Here in Singapore, he has persuaded Fairprice supermarkets to support his campaign, and will be in talks with Malaysian and Hong Kong supermarkets to do the same. All these activities are focused on his favourite topic.
Mr. Jack Sim thinks, writes, talks about one subject. Toilets.
He is the founder of the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) and also of the World Toilet Organization (WTO). Go ahead and laugh. He’s used to it. In fact, that’s exactly what he told himself to prepare for when he first embarked on his mission to save the world, flushing one potty at a time.
“For something like toilets, you need to expect this reaction,” he says. “I get used to it, and I prepare myself for it.” With his energy and sense of humour, he “bowled” over the 2,000 students who took part in the National Young Leaders Day in May. Now, he’s getting set to inspire kids at a similar event of primary schoolers in November.
Mr. Sim’s journey began after Mr. Goh Chok Tong, who was then Singapore’s Prime Minister, mentioned that the state of public restrooms was one way to measure social graciousness. Mr Sim felt disgusted that a wealthy country like Singapore had such terrible public toilets. Although Singapore had had a clean public toilet campaign for 20 years, it clearly wasn’t working.
Inspired by toilet associations in Japan, he decided to start his own movement to flush away Singapore’s foul toilet reputation. He knew that people would laugh at him, but he didn’t care. Instead of getting angry, he laughed along with them. “We decided to see the humour in it – and there’s a lot of humour in toilets,” he says. “We just encourage people not to be shy about it, and we laugh together and discuss it in the end.”
This approach has worked. Starting out with 15 members in the RAS, Jack Sim went global when he founded the World Toilet Organization in 2001. Now, representatives of toilet associations from more than 40 countries meet every year to discuss issues such as toilet maintenance, water technology and sanitation.
The WTO meets every November around World Toilet Day (that’s 19 November, mark your calendar!). This year’s meeting will be held in Bangkok. Still, people ask why Jack is so potty over toilets. He explains, “We go to the toilet all the time. We don’t talk about it, and yet we should be able to talk about it. We need to talk about it, we need to discuss it – because it affects us, in our everyday life.” In fact, ignoring the toilet can have costly consequences, as the city of Beijing found out when it competed for the right to host the Olympic Games in 2000. Apparently, one reason why Beijing wasn’t picked is because the judges felt that the city didn’t have enough clean toilets!
Beijing learnt its lesson. The city sent officials to WTO’s next meeting, and has been a staunch supporter ever since.
Through the WTO and RAS, Jack Sim hopes to make it a subject that people think about seriously and don’t mind talking about without getting embarrassed.
In Singapore, the RAS started the Happy Toilet Programme. It has persuaded schools to start their own toilet education schemes. Thanks to its efforts, the National Environment Agency introduced a number of new rulings on toilets.
Last year, Mr. Sim even started a school, the World Toilet College, to train workers as professional toilet cleaners and fixers.
Sometimes, he reflects on how things have changed. One lesson from his experience is that you don’t need qualifications to be a leader for social improvement. “You have just got to do it,” he says. “We started with small resources, and now we’ve got a world wide organization.”
|World Toilet Summit 2005, Belfast, Ireland|
The determination of one man, and the spread of one idea has influenced the world. Jack Sim is even responsible for Switzerland – famous for its cleanliness – setting up its own toilet association. In recognition of his contributions, Jack Sim was awarded the World Environment Award in 2004.
But, this restroom king is not going to rest yet. He’s a leader in constant motion. For World Toilet Day in November, he’s asking schools all over the world to submit a video of their toilets, which will be screened on WTO’s website.