Despite failing the O-levels, he became a millionaire at age 29. Conversely, he switched his career to fight against the global sanitation crisis at age 40. ‘Serial entrepreneur’ turned ‘Mr. Toilet’, 63-year-old Singaporean businessman Jack Sim is notably known for being the Founder of the Restroom Association of Singapore, World Toilet Organization, and Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) Hub. Furthermore, he is the first Singaporean elected to be an Ashoka Global Fellow (2007). He was also named Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine (2008). Moreover, there is a 2019 documentary film titled “Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man” based on his life and work. Here is what he had to say to Entreur about his ‘eccentric’ journey.
Ask yourself what you would like to say to yourself about your journey on the last day of your life. Such reflection will help you create the priorities in a healthy way.
What incident initiated the idea of creating the World Toilet Organization?
I went from rags to riches. Accordingly, I understood how it feels to live in poverty. So, I was never a spendthrift, not even when I made money. I reflected and realized that I was not spending money but time. As I was already 40 years old, I only had another 40 years to live a meaningful life. I learned that the highest value for time is “Service to Humanity”. As a result, when I saw that society neglected toilets, I first started the Restroom Association of Singapore to ensure clean public toilets. Later, I realized there were 15 toilet associations around the world without an HQ. So, I introduced the World Toilet Organization. I utilized the guerilla marketing strategy to play a pun on World Trade Organization and used humor to trigger global attention to break the taboo on toilets and sanitation.
Despite achieving the so-called ‘peak of civilization’, why do you think taboo related to toilets still prevails in society?
People see themselves as elegant beings and feel guilty about producing a ‘disgusting’ excretion of body waste. They remain in a state of denial and teach their children that defecation is an embarrassing thing. However, what we do not discuss cannot be improved. Thus, taboo continues. Like all past taboos, once we speak about it enough, we start breaking it. Subsequently, the toilet is now seeing daylight and taking center-stage.
How do you measure the impact of your work?
I do not know how to measure my work’s impact because it was not exclusively done by me. I leverage everyone to do the job in their names. I am just happy things have changed rapidly over the last 20 years.
In 2001, there was comparatively less media coverage on the sanitation agenda. It was so unspeakable that they parked it under the water agenda. Since water is a more ‘glamorous’ topic, sanitation ‘drowned underwater’ and stayed in oblivion.
After initiating World Toilet Day on 19 November, the World Toilet Organization’s founding day, we got an outreach between 2 to 3 billion per year. In 2013, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved 19 November as the official UN World Toilet Day. This legacy created legitimacy for all countries to plan policy change and promote sanitation.
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are making a new World Toilet Standards and Design Guidelines publication to mitigate the transmission of diseases through common toilets.
What are your plans with the World Toilet Organization and Base of the Pyramid Hub?
Currently, the World Toilet Organization’s mission is going on well. So, I found time to address an even bigger issue: converting 4 billion people earning less than USD 8 a day into a massive transformative marketplace. Therefore, I started the BoP Hub. I saw that nobody could get out of poverty through donations. I grew up in Singapore, where we refused foreign aid but instead attracted foreign investments. Accordingly, we transformed from a 3rd world country to 1st world in 25 years.
Therefore, I want to create a global movement towards market-based solutions: teach them to fish but not give them fish. I have just completed a 65,000 sq. ft. SDG Center to be the microcosm for trading with the smallholder farmers and fishermen. If the poor can get direct access to markets, investments, technologies, and training, they can eventually enter the middle-class.
You are a source of inspiration for millions, but who or what inspires you?
Nature inspires me. I want to design the world sustainably, mimicking nature. My wife inspires me. I am in love with her every day, and this gives me great energy and freedom to do whatever I want to do without restrictions. My children inspire me. If I want them to be good people, I must also show them how to be a good human being. Death is my motivator. Knowing that life is finite helps me treasure every moment and cherish every relationship.
What is your advice for our readers?
Set a date on which you expect yourself to die. This will give you circumspection on how to live a meaningful life. You will be more humble and treasure your relationships more if you know you are going to die.
Furthermore, ask yourself what you would like to say to yourself about your journey on the last day of your life. Such reflection will help you create the priorities in a healthy way.