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In Conversation with Jack Sim, World Toilet Organization

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.

BL: How does the organization facilitate many governments of the world towards clean sanitation?
Jack Sim: WTO membership grew from the initial 15 now to 200 chapters and we facilitate these chapters around the world with knowledge sharing, branding, media coverages and matching resources. We did some development program in Aceh, Sri Lanka, China but largely we partner others to do the implementation on the ground. Currently, we are also working with USAID in Cambodia. WTO does not have a large budget. We work mostly by leveraging others through an alignment of mutual missions.

BL: Are there any new initiatives which the organization is moving towards?
Jack Sim: Now we see donation is alone is not going to solve the problem of 2.5 billion people without access to proper sanitation. So we are mobilizing many factions: Businessmen, government, banks, micro-finance institution NGOs, UN system, academia to enter the sanitation marketplace which we calculate to be worth about USD 1 trillion. With profit motive, the solution will be sustainable.

BL: The World Toilet Organization have been involved in setting the standard for lavatories in Beijing prior to the Olympics last year? What are the challenges you encounter in convincing the local authorities to adopt the standards?
Jack Sim: It’s not so difficult actually except that you need to find the right party at the right time. For Beijing, the Olympics was a great motivator, so getting standards set, and investments for renovating public toilets to receive the guests is no problem.

In Singapore, we lobbied NEA to change the Code of Practice so ladies get more cubicles and do not need to queue up anymore for new buildings since 2005. We want to spread this law globally and so we partnered International Code Council of USA to start working on this.

BL: The World Toliet Organization has been cited as a case study on scaling social innovations to solve world’s problems in John Elkington’s “The Power of Unreasonable People”. Do you think that social entrepreneurs are really “unreasonable people”?
Jack Sim: Innovators are often seen as troublemakers because they disrupt the norms and status quo breaking people’s comfort zones to move into a new mindset. Our journeys are met with resistance every day. But our intention are good and this drives us forward. We are seen as unreasonable people because we seek to remedy social gaps that are unreasonable in the first place.

Many innovators are also under-resourced and this is another unreasonableness because somehow, we dream and make it happen regardless of circumstances. We want others to succeed doing what we do mobilize others into action.

BL: What are your thoughts on the trends in social entrepreneurship in Singapore?
Jack Sim: Our educational system is a meritocratic one: Study hard, get top marks, get good jobs, get rich and retire well. This is a selfish system orientated on economic scoreboard as a life mission. Jealousy is actually quite a great driver but we don’t get deep satisfaction from it.

On our last day of life, we do not say: I’ve got more money than you, hahaha… and die.”

So we need a kinder and more circumspect approach to society. The trend of the world is towards social entrepreneurship.

Fortunately, I am now seeing some rare green-shoots of genuinely passionate youths and even genuinely passionate bureaucrats. These are still in small numbers but I am encouraged by them. There is love in everyone’s heart. We need trends to open them on a large scale.

BL: How do you think that we can do more to promote social entrepreneurship, particularly in the realm of social innovation?
Jack Sim: As consumers become more conscious of the behavior of companies, they demand that companies behave responsibly. We are in early stage of this trend but I see it growing fast. While many companies still see corporate social responsibility (CSR) as low-cost advertising, they’ll soon learn that trends are pushing them to become real McCoys. You can’t say one thing and do another.

I hope Ministry of Education can add social service into their main curriculum and not just these enforced CIP hours which has no meaning to many students. They do it without their heart since school still focus on marks.

BL: What do you think are the three most important traits for an entrepreneur?
Jack Sim:

  • Dreams of better world, identify and remedy social gaps.
  • Mobilize people to act and not lead alone.
  • Build strong institutions for the mission to reduce dependency in you.

BL: Jack, thank you for the interview, and we wish you and your team all the best in WTO and also any social entrepreneurship initiatives in the future.

Profile of Jack Sim:
Jack broke the global taboo of toilet and sanitation and legitimizes it for mainstream culture. After attaining financial independence at age of 40, he decided to devote the rest of his life to social work. He established the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) in 1998 to bring the subject of toilet to the centre stage. In 2001, Jack created the World Toilet Organization (WTO) as a global network and service platform where the various toilet associations, academia, government, UN agencies and toilet stakeholders learn from one another and leverage media and corporate support that in turn influenced governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies. Since its inception, WTO organized eight World Toilet Summits and two World Toilet Expo and Forum. Last year, Asian Development Bank was co-host of the World Toilet Summit at the Venetian Resort in Macau.

Today, WTO is a growing network of 186 organizations in 56 countries. World Toilet Organization declared 19 November as World Toilet Day in 2001 and this is now celebrated worldwide each year towards improving the state of toilets and sanitation globally. In 2004, he was awarded the inaugural Singapore Green Plan Award 2012 by Singapore’s National Environment Agency for contribution to Environment. In 2005, Jack founded the World Toilet College to provide high quality training in Toilet Design, Maintenance, Cleanliness and Ecological Sanitation Technologies. The college is a joint venture with the Singapore Polytechnic. He also successfully lobbied the government changing the Building Code of Practice to have double the number of cubicles for ladies so that they would not have to queue up for the restroom. He holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in International Marketing from University of Strahclyde.

For his social cause on sanitation, he studied in Norway University of Life Science, the Stockholm Environment Institute, Harvard Business School as well as Harvard Kennedy School. Jack won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year awarded by Schwab Foundation of Switzerland in 2006. In 2007, Jack became one of the key members to convene the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance comprised of key players for sanitation. Members include UN-Habitat, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, The United Nations, The World Bank, World Sanitation Fund and several other international groups working together to improve sanitation for all. The same year, he also became the first Singaporean elected to be an Ashoka Global Fellow. Ashoka is the largest social entrepreneurship support group in the world. In January 2008, Jack was appointed a Council Member to the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Water Security, as well as the GAC for Social Entrepreneurship. Time Magazine also named him Hero of the Environment in 2008. Jack is also guest lecturer for social entrepreneurship in Illinois University, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, INSEAD, and other institutions. He is happily married with 4 children and only 1 wife.

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