Monday 29 July 2013

'Toilet Man' Jack Sim has the last laugh

Ridiculed and scorned by some, he gets the world to focus on dire sanitation crisis
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 28 Jul 2013

Oddball. Joker. Troublemaker. Toilet cleaner. Jack Sim has been called all these names and more.

But it doesn't bother him. In fact, he wears the words proudly. After all, he has spent years of his life being rejected, laughed at and even shunned.

Now he is having the last laugh.

"Bad things can become good," he said, chatting in the living room of his two-storey home on Meyer Road in Katong last Thursday.

The night before, the United Nations General Assembly had agreed to adopt a resolution to mark Nov 19 as World Toilet Day.

It was the result of a long and often dirty journey for Mr Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organisation, a non-governmental group that has championed clean toilets and sanitation for over a decade.

Once ridiculed and avoided by Singaporeans and some in the establishment, he is now embraced by them and celebrated.

His idea for a worldwide day devoted to toilets was rejected the first time he suggested it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) four years ago. But it finally got the Government's support and was taken successfully all the way to the UN.

Last Wednesday in New York, the 193 members of the General Assembly adopted by consensus the three-page resolution, formally known as "Sanitation for All".

A helping hand

Mr Sim first approached the MFA with his idea in 2009.

The UN had adopted 2008 as the Year of Sanitation but once that was over, he noticed interest in sanitation wane. What the world needed, he felt, was an annual event to keep an important issue in view.

His e-mail request to the MFA was rejected - the man heading the UN Mission in New York was Mr Vanu Menon and he deemed the suggestion "inappropriate".

"Vanu said he didn't want it. A toilet didn't sound like something Singapore would stand for," Mr Sim recalled.

But that changed a few years later. Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo attended an annual World Toilet Summit in Hainan in November 2011, and after three days seeing Mr Sim in action, left infected by his passion.

To help, he put Mr Sim in touch directly with the same Mr Menon, now deputy secretary for South- east Asia and International Organisations at MFA.

"He called Vanu and he said to him, 'Just give half an hour to Jack, and if you still don't like it, it is ok. But just give him an audience. And then you decide'," said Mr Sim.

After that face-to-face meeting, Mr Menon was persuaded that there was something worth pursuing. Thus began an unlikely partnership between the diplomat and the Toilet Man.

And that was just the start.

Over the 11/2 years, Singapore's small team of UN permanent missions officers began lobbying representatives of more than 100 countries big and small for support.

They drafted a three-page resolution to capture the dire urgency of tackling a global sanitation crisis, and explained that it was not getting enough attention.

Not only did they eventually get 120 countries, including China, Japan and Britain, to add their voice to the initiative, but also in the process they caught the eye of UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson, who is leading the world body's advocacy campaign for sanitation.

Mr Sim got to know the UN's alphabet soup bureaucracy well over the period - he met the secretary- general's advisory board on water and sanitation, and representatives of UN Habitat, UNEP, UNDP and Unicef.

"There is even such a thing as the president of the General Assembly office!" he said.

Growing pains

When the day of the UN General Assembly meeting came and passed, Mr Sim was a happy man. "I feel like I've won the Nobel Prize for sanitation."

Indeed, his satisfaction comes not only from putting toilets on the world calendar officially, but also from showing that oddballs do have their place in Singapore.

"Before, I felt my work was not in sync with the Government. The most recognition I got was from outside. I have a lot of traction outside. So having this level of cooperation and support from my own government, I feel very, very appreciative as a citizen," he said.

A self-proclaimed kaypoh (busybody), it is not difficult to see why Mr Sim may have felt excluded or indeed rubbed some people the wrong way. He speaks his mind openly, without filter, and is often critical of the Government.

He has a list of ideas ready to roll. For example, a 12-page report on how to improve tray return in Singapore's food centres. He has also tried getting a fort in Katong Park restored, and to encourage car sharing.

"I think young people here like my work, and adults too. But the Government is afraid of disruptive people. Innovation equals challenging the status quo," he said.

This sense of being on the outside looking in started from young. As a child, he was frequently hauled up on stage in school to be caned - for talking too much and distracting the class.

With a restless mind and poor O-level results, he could not get into university, and so went straight to work. He started out as a construction site supervisor at Swiss company Diethelm (now Diethelm Keller), then transferred to be a salesman.

He liked sales better, but always felt that his lack of paper qualifications would be held against him.

"I felt like they were only interested in people who studied. To me that is not a business. You pay for someone who can make you money," he said emphatically.

His early experiences taught him he was not made to follow a traditional path. After three years, he started his first business.

But his restlessness continued. In 16 years, he founded 16 different businesses, and they made money, he said. He married and started a family. And still, he always felt that something was missing from his life.

When the Asian financial crisis struck Singapore in 1997, things took a turn for the worse. "I was gloomy, I was quite depressed, because business was bad."

With unemployment soaring, the economy tanking and business unsatisfying, he became a volunteer. He did some time with the suicide prevention agency, Samaritans of Singapore, and also the Heritage Conservation Centre.

In it, he found some satisfaction. "If I didn't find my self worth, I would have been driven crazy. But doing volunteer work gave me a sense of purpose again, and kept me sane. That was important."

Realising that changed him.

In 1998, inspired by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's call for clean public toilets as an indicator of social graciousness, Mr Sim started the Restroom Association of Singapore because it seemed like something nobody else would do.

As the economy recovered, he began intensifying his fight against dirty toilets: "I wanted to make Singapore home to the cleanest toilets in the world."

In 1999, he learnt about the Japan Toilet Association, and when he found out there were more such associations out there, he mooted the idea of a central headquarters in Singapore.

On Nov 19, 2001, the World Toilet Organisation was founded. The name was chosen deliberately, and he was keenly aware that there was another WTO already - the World Trade Organisation.

"It was guerilla marketing. Whether they sue or don't sue us, there is no downside," he said, as the group would have benefited from the media attention either way.

There was no trouble from the other WTO in the end. In fact, at a chance meeting with the world trade body's director-general Pascal Lamy, he was delighted to be told: "Your WTO is more famous."

His new organisation focused initially on toilet cleanliness, but Mr Sim said he quickly realised that "what is worse is not even having a toilet".

He began to find out more about sanitation issues, visited villages in remote areas in Cambodia and Rwanda, and discovered the dire sanitation crisis in the world.

Today the numbers roll off his tongue - 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open; 40 per cent of the world's population do not have a proper toilet.

His advocacy led to him being featured as Time magazine's hero of the environment and Reader's Digest's Asian of the Year. And organisations like World Economic Forum and Synergos have made him a fellow. He has even published a book, titled Simple Jack.

Seeing him succeed this way is satisfying for his wife Julie, 52, who said she has encouraged him to find happiness. "I always tell him as long as you feel it is right, go and do it," she said.

But perhaps what is most rewarding is that he feels he has made a breakthrough for Singapore's fringe players.

He opens his laptop to show an e-mail from Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong congratulating him on the UN resolution. "You showed perseverance and went to places others feared to tread (pun intended)," Mr Goh wrote.

Having made a dent all the way to the UN, what next for the Toilet Man?

"The next step is to work at the country level to let it trickle down to provinces and villages, to let each person in each country take action for himself. If you don't use the legitimacy, it will go to waste."

He is in the midst of planning a big event in New York to mark the inaugural World Toilet Day. He hopes to attract sanitation celebrities like actor Matt Damon, who founded non-profit, and Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

He has a song ready, in what is likely to be a British-Argentinian- Singaporean collaboration, but is still looking for a singer.

"If I can get a Singapore singer, I would be very happy. But we can't pay. Actually you should write that I am looking for a singer!" he said.

Despite last week's UN milestone, Mr Sim does not expect the teasing to end. He lets on that his four children - aged 16 to 22 - are sometimes mocked in school for having a Toilet Man for their dad.

Not embarrassed, he tells them to embrace his achievements. He said he tells them: "If they say I am a toilet cleaner, just say yes, he is. And it is a very good job."


The Man

Who: Jack Sim, 56

Education: Kim Keat Primary School; Whitley Secondary School; Hotel management at the former Vocational and Industrial Training Board; Masters in Public Administration, National University of Singapore

Income: Not from the World Toilet Organisation. Draws $11,000 a month as chairman of his company Besco Building Supplies, a provider of construction materials for restrooms.

Family: Married to Julie Teng, 52. Four children Earth, Worth, Truth and Faith, aged 16 to 22.

The Cause

Founded: Nov 19, 2001

Members: 235 chapters in 58 countries

Key activities
World Toilet Day: Nov 19. The UN has now made it official.
World Toilet Summit: Brings together experts and advocates on sanitation. This year's summit will be held in Solo, Indonesia.
World Toilet College: Provides professional training courses for sanitation and the restroom industry.
SaniShop: Provides support for design of low-cost toilets through social franchises.

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