Asia's Most Influential: Jack Sim, Founder of Restroom Association of Singapore and World Toilet Organization
If there is anyone more suited to talk about the unglamorous business of doing one’s business, it is Jack Sim.
“We go to the toilet six to eight times a day and spend three full years of our lives inside the toilet; it’s a natural human process and we should not avoid talking about it,” says the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), who is determined to break the taboo around the topic of toileting with his unique brand of humour and light-hearted approach to a serious problem.
Since 2001, the global non-profit has been working to bring awareness to the sanitation crisis worldwide by lobbying governments, public and private sector stakeholders, and the international community to prioritise sanitation in the development agenda.
Toilets are an indicator of our quality of life. What you do every day is culture, and if you don’t have good toilet culture, you don’t have good quality of life.
According to a 2019 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund or Unicef, and the World Health Organization, about 4.2 billion people go without safe sanitation services globally, and the consequences can be deadly, as poor sanitation increases the transmission of diseases such as dysentery and hepatitis A.
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Having grown up in a kampong in the 1950s, Sim knows these dangers first-hand. “We didn’t have a toilet in the house, but a bucket system in the outhouse; there were a lot of incidents of typhoid fever, cholera and intestinal worms.”
Around one billion people still face the indignity of defecating in the open today, and diarrhoeal diseases—a direct consequence of poor sanitation—kill more children every year than Aids, malaria and measles combined.
Through WTO’s advocacy work, revolutions in sanitation have begun taking place all over the world over the past two decades. In 2013, the organisation was granted consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and achieved another milestone for the global sanitation movement that year when 122 countries co-sponsored a United Nations (UN) resolution tabled by the Singapore government to designate World Toilet Day, a WTO initiative held annually on 19 November, as an official UN day.
In 2014, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi embarked on an ambitious sanitation campaign to build 110 million latrines for its people, giving access to almost half of India’s 1.3 billion population access to a toilet within five years. Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping launched a “Toilet Revolution in China” campaign to improve sanitary conditions and beautify toilets all over the country a year later.
For all Sim’s efforts in mobilising governments and policymakers towards WTO’s mission, a documentary chronicling his journey was filmed across Los Angeles, India, China and Singapore over five years. Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man was launched in 2019 and can be viewed on Amazon Prime.
At 63, Sim is now on a mission to end global poverty. To this end, the serial entrepreneur who created 16 businesses in 16 years and achieved financial freedom at 40, has just built a $10 million “World Trade Centre for the Poor” in Singapore.
“That’s the de facto name but we renamed it SDG Centre in line with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the UN,” says Sim. The 65,000sqft building in the Kampong Ubi industrial estate comprises co-working and event spaces as well as training facilities and a kitchen to equip single mothers, for instance, with cooking and baking skills to provide them with an avenue for income.
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“Every year, about US$150 billion is donated to developing countries yet people don’t get out of poverty. So I want to transform this into an efficient marketplace and training hub for the four billion low-income people in the world, who earn less than US$8 a day to help lift them out of poverty,” he explains.
And if anyone could resolve another colossal global crisis, he just might be the man to do it—in the house that Jack built.
- Photography Darren Gabriel Leow
- Styling Joey Tan
- Outfit Giorgio Armani sweater
- Hair Kenneth Ong
- Grooming Bobbie Ng
- Photographer's Assistant Eric Tan