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Jack Sim on a roll to clean up dirty toilet habits

Mr Sim, with the sculptures of a boy squatting down, in his Katong home. He said the boy represents his three-year-old self having to do his business in the open in the kampung he used to live in, adding: "We've come a long way since then."
Mr Sim, with the sculptures of a boy squatting down, in his Katong home. He said the boy represents his three-year-old self having to do his business in the open in the kampung he used to live in, adding: "We've come a long way since then." ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Jack Sim's helping to launch World Toilet College in India to spread sanitation message

World Toilet Organisation founder Jack Sim is not afraid to stick his nose into matters which most people keep clear of, in his mission to raise sanitation standards.

While he has campaigned for improved standards from Cambodia to Mozambique, his latest project aims to plug the gap where it is most needed.

On World Toilet Day on Thursday, his non-profit group will launch a World Toilet College in India - where almost half the population do their business in the open. "In India, you have 600 million people defecating in public. The problem is the biggest and I have to go where the situation is the worst," he told The Straits Times.

The three-year World Toilet College programme aims to reach out to locals from all walks of life, be they sanitation workers,  middle managers or government officials. It will provide hands-on courses on toilet cleaning and maintenance, and promote behavioural change by raising awareness about the importance of good hygiene.

LOO OR STOREROOM?

When you build toilets for them, you have to make sure they will use them because they don't feel that they should have a toilet. If you give them a toilet, they think that it's a storeroom.

MR JACK SIM, on why his work in India involves much more than just building infrastructure

Mr Sim hopes to reach out to 100,000 people in Rishikesh, New Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.

While he is working with the Andhra Pradesh state government to build six million toilets there, he said there is a need to go beyond infrastructure to educate the masses.

"When you build toilets for them, you have to make sure they will use them because they don't feel that they should have a toilet. If you give them a toilet, they think that it's a storeroom," said Mr Sim, who added that many toilets built in India before ended up as "ghost toilets".

To that end, he is working with an advertising agency to create a marketing campaign that aims to help the locals see toilets as a "happy space", so they will enjoy the space and clean and maintain it with pride. He also hopes to make the toilets bright and well-ventilated so the locals will no longer think of them as "dark, dirty and smelly".

Having grown up in a kampung in Lorong Ong Lye near Paya Lebar Road, the 58-year-old Mr Sim knows all about dirty loos.

Back then, he took care of business by using a nightsoil bucket system, where one had to squat over wooden planks.

It took some time before Mr Sim found his calling. He ran businesses, including investment firms and small real-estate development projects, before deciding to dedicate his life to social work at age 40.

After the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, he volunteered with suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore.

In 1998, he set up the Restroom Association Singapore after being inspired by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's call for clean public toilets - one of the markers of a gracious society. In 2001, he set up the World Toilet Organisation.

Since then, Mr Sim has done everything from wearing quirky costumes to posing with toilet paper and toilet bowls to raise awareness about the importance of improving sanitation standards.

Defecation is not something that most people find easy to talk about, noted Mr Sim, who added: "It fits my irreverent and fun loving character well. I'm loving every moment living in this way."

While he has been ridiculed for his ideas, Mr Sim, who is married with four children, has notched up various accomplishments over the years. In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly agreed to adopt a resolution to mark Nov 19 as World Toilet Day, after he suggested this to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about four years earlier.

And in 2008, he was recognised as Time magazine's Hero of the Environment.

Mr Chua Hung Meng, a retired banker who has known Mr Sim since they were Primary 1 classmates at the now defunct Kim Keat Primary School, said he was a kind person with a lot of ideas.

"When he first told me about the Restroom Association, I also laughed, but I later gave him advice on how to set it up," said Mr Chua, 58, who is on the board of directors of the World Toilet Organisation.

"The World Toilet College in India is yet another marvellous idea of his. He has always wanted to help people and do something good."

Referring to the sculptures of a young boy squatting down that he puts in his house in Meyer Road, Katong, Mr Sim said they represented his three-year-old self when he had to do his business in the open in the kampung he lived in. "We've come a long way since then," said Mr Sim.

"A lot of Singaporeans assume that life is not good enough but it is actually paradise, compared to those who are in developing countries. Since we now have the privilege (of good toilets), we should see what we can do so others can have this same privilege."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'He's on a roll to clean up dirty toilet habits'. Print Edition | Subscribe