In Conversation with Jack Sim, World Toilet Organization, June 30, 2009 by Bernard Leong
In the book “The Power of Unreasonable People“, a definitive guide (by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan) on the social entrepreneurship movement has mentioned a Singaporean social entrepreneur by the name of Jack Sim, who started the World Toilet Organization (WTO) and how his work provided a scaling solution for governments to set standards on sanitation.
Earning two prestigous global social entrepreneurship accolades: Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur and Ashoka Global Fellow, Jack has started a global clean toilet movement that help governments to shape sanitation policies. One success story is that the World Toilet Organization assisted the Chinese government in adopting the standards for lavatories before the Beijing Olympics last year. We have managed to get Jack to come on board for an interview, to tell us about the story behind World Toilet Organization and his views on the trends of social entrepreneurship in Singapore.
BL: Hi Jack, thank you for agreeing to an interview on SGE. First of all, tell us about your background and what are you working on before embarking on the World Toilet Organization (WTO)?
Jack Sim: I was a businessman since age 25 and at 40, I realized since our average life-span is 80, time is the currency of life and I need to use it meaningfully with a sense of urgency. Money becomes not an interesting pursuit anymore because I have to exchange time for money. It is better to exchange time for more meaningful impact for others.
BL: What inspired you to start the World Toilet Organization?
Jack Sim: In my search for meaning, I read one morning in the newspaper when PM Goh Chok Tong mentioned that we should measure our graciousness according to the cleanliness of our public toilets. I thought this is my calling and started Restroom Association of Singapore. After LianHe Zao Bao’s report, the public’s response was; “Somebody ought to have started this long ago.” They like it.
In 1999, I went to Tokyo for the Asia-Pacific Toilet Symposium and found 15 countries represented there. I wanted to bring that meeting to Singapore. Thailand and Vietnam also wanted to do the same. After my impromptu presentation about how the event will be organized and run like a swiss-watch, no traffic jams, global media coverage, professional management, great shopping, high impact, etc, both Vietnam and Thailand said: ” We are not presenting, we all going to Singapore.”
Next, I asked where is the world’s HQ for our movement. They said there was none. The Japanese host declined to lead because of language difficulty. So I offered to start World Toilet Organization in Singapore as a service platform and HQ. They agreed.
Later, the inaugural meeting became World Toilet Summit and our birthday 19 November became celebrated as World Toilet Day.
The first World Toilet Summit took the global media by storm and suddenly we are booked for 2002 in Seoul ( host Mayor of Suwon City/ Korea Clean Toilet Association), 2003 Taipei ( host Taipei Vice Mayor/ Taiwan Toilet Association), 2004 Beijing ( host Beijing Tourism Bureau). Later, 2005 Belfast Lord Mayor/ British Toilet Association, 2006 Moscow Mayor/ Russian Toilet Association, 2007 New Delhi President of India/ Sulabh International, 2008 Macao Asian Development Bank, and 2009 in Singapore this year.
It started as a hobby but got so addictive that I left my business operation to my managers and work full-time pro bono at WTO since 2005.
BL: What is the mission of the World Toilet Organization?
Jack Sim: We started as a clean toilet movement to improve design, cleaning and behavior. Later, we also extend to poverty, rural and slums toilets, sewerage, to meet the MDGs.
Through the massive media engagement globally, politicians and the global community found legitimacy to speak about toilets and we can attribute ourselves to the success in breaking the global taboo and bringing the issues to mainstream and center-stage attention.