Jack Sim's big business

PHOTO: Jack Sim's big business

IT could have all been just an ego trip, but somewhere along the way, Jack Sim realised that the global fight for sanitation was "serious shit. Until recently, his crusade for clean toilets has made him the subject of scorn and ridicule in Singapore - which, in his books, is always a welcome affliction.

"Everyone thought I had nothing better to do than to talk crap," he says with the faintest trace of irony. "But you can't improve what you don't discuss."

Entrepreneur turns toilet man after '97 financial crisis

  • It could have all been just an ego trip, but somewhere along the way, Jack Sim realised that the global fight for sanitation was "serious shit.
  • Until recently, his crusade for clean toilets has made him the subject of scorn and ridicule in Singapore - which, in his books, is always a welcome affliction.
  • "Everyone thought I had nothing better to do than to talk crap," he says with the faintest trace of irony. "But you can't improve what you don't discuss."
  • With his bold blend of potty humour and serious facts - "this is big business, you know; 2.5 billion people still lack access to proper toilets. And flies don't discriminate when they spread diseases" - Mr Sim has tried to weave words like 'shit' and 'faeces' into common parlance, to raise awareness for the need for modern sanitation.
  • "I try to make people confront the issue by making it funny. So when people tell me, 'Jack, they're laughing at you,' I always say 'Yes, but they're also listening to me'," says the founder of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO).
  • While long regarded as a bit of a joke at home, Mr Sim's advocacy efforts have gained him ardent admirers abroad - and a string of accolades to match.
  • Before his lavatorial exploits, Mr Sim was a serial entrepreneur. Without a university degree, he established 16 profitable businesses in as many years, including a $115 million rooftop tile factory.
  • Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which decimated Mr Sim's corporate empire, slashed his number of properties owned from 15 to five, and shook what he thought he knew about wealth and happiness.

With his bold blend of potty humour and serious facts - "this is big business, you know; 2.5 billion people still lack access to proper toilets. And flies don't discriminate when they spread diseases" - Mr Sim has tried to weave words like 'shit' and 'faeces' into common parlance, to raise awareness for the need for modern sanitation.

"I try to make people confront the issue by making it funny. So when people tell me, 'Jack, they're laughing at you,' I always say 'Yes, but they're also listening to me'," says the founder of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO).

While long regarded as a bit of a joke at home, Mr Sim's advocacy efforts have gained him ardent admirers abroad - and a string of accolades to match.

Time magazine has named him their Hero of the Environment twice; he was also lauded as the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2006 and Reader's Digest Asian of the Year in 2011.

But 2013 has proven to be a homecoming of sorts for Mr Sim. In July, Singapore tabled a United Nations resolution calling for better sanitation worldwide - an idea first mooted by the 56-year-old. The resolution inscribes Nov 19 as World Toilet Day on the UN calendar, making it a day of observance for all 193 member states.

"Before, I was seen as a troublemaker and everyone questioned my intentions. When I said our toilets were dirty, people thought I was criticising the government, the whole system," recalls Mr Sim, his usually-placid voice rising a notch with indignation. He even contemplated migrating to Australia.

"Now I'm in the good books of the government. My contributions are valued, and I feel happy to be a citizen. But it wasn't always like that in the past, you know."

The making of Singapore's Toilet Man

Before his lavatorial exploits, Mr Sim was a serial entrepreneur. Without a university degree, he established 16 profitable businesses in as many years, including a $115 million rooftop tile factory.

"That was when I fell into the trap - I used to think that if you are successful, you must drive a white Mercedes car, wear a Rolex watch, have a country club membership, use a Montblanc pen. I did all of that. I had everything."

Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which decimated Mr Sim's corporate empire, slashed his number of properties owned from 15 to five, and shook what he thought he knew about wealth and happiness. Desperate for some sort of non-material fulfilment, Mr Sim became a volunteer at Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention agency. Giving his time to something other than the pursuit of money brought a new sense of purpose.

"It was around the time of the recession that things started to become clear. Everything I had accumulated was just an illusion. The things I owned didn't make me feel happier," says Mr Sim, who was determined to expend his energy on something more meaningful.

That opportunity came in 1998, when then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the measure of a country's social graces was the state of its public toilets.

"I didn't think that was fair, because it's not only public behaviour that contributes to a toilet's cleanliness, but also the way the space is laid out and how it is maintained by cleaners," says Mr Sim.

His particular interest in Mr Goh's comments stemmed from "prior knowledge" of restroom issues, gleaned from his work in Besco Building Supplies - one of the companies he started in his past life as a businessman. Founded in 1984, Besco - the only business Mr Sim still owns - sells auditorium seats and toilet cubicles.

Saddled with his clump of floundering businesses and a newfound affinity for social work, Mr Sim told himself: "If I can't create another business, I'll create an NGO (non-governmental organisation)." And thus the Restroom Association of Singapore - and later the WTO - was born.

When asked if that was just opportunism masked as altruism, Mr Sim responds: "What's wrong with being opportunistic? The very spirit of entrepreneurship is to be opportunistic. When you're an entrepreneur, you see opportunity all the time. Be it for profit or for social dividend, both are useful."

Of toilets and intentions

When he first established the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998, Mr Sim's goals revolved primarily around aesthetics - he wanted to make Singapore's toilets the cleanest in the world.

This changed the following year, after he attended international symposiums on the global sanitation crisis. That was when he realised that other countries were trying to tackle far weightier issues, like preventable deaths caused by poor sanitation habits and infrastructure.

"I realised that having no toilet is even worse than a dirty toilet. So I started to focus much more on that," says Mr Sim, who founded the Singapore-headquartered WTO in 2001 by bringing together about 15 other restroom associations worldwide. Today, WTO is a growing network of 235 organisations in 58 countries.

"So I think I'm an expert in doing things that I've never done before. It's very fun to live like that - to be able to walk into unknown territory and make something work, based on a gut feeling. The rest you don't know, but you'll find out," he notes of his accidental stumble into the world of toilet advocacy.

By 2005, he had closed or sold all but one of his 16 companies to focus full-time on WTO work. At around the same time, he downsized from a Mercedes-Benz car to a Toyota Camry and kept his Rolex untouched in a drawer, favouring a $350 Citizen watch instead.

"When you're doing business, you tend to feel quite selfish. But the selflessness of social work gave me a new lease on life," he says.

One of WTO's flagship initiatives is SaniShop, a social enterprise franchise that trains less developed communities to produce and sell their own pour-flush toilets. With WTO's guidance, locals learn to weld steel molds and cast toilets with cement. These restroom systems are then sold for approximately US$45 per family.

"In the US$45 price, there is a US$7 profit - the maker earns US$5, and the seller earns a commission of US$2. It's not profit-making for WTO," says Mr Sim, who notes that SaniShop operates with the support of the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Lien Foundation, Unilever, and the Singapore Economic Development Board.

He estimates that about 30,000 such toilets have been installed in Cambodia, with another 20,000 potted in India. The franchise has also expanded to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Nigeria.

Because of his involvement in Besco, however, Mr Sim has been dogged by questions about a potential conflict of interest. For one, detractors have questioned whether his efforts to plant toilets worldwide are part of a plot to boost his company's bottomline.

He scoffs at the suggestion: "The work I do (with WTO) is about people who don't have toilets, and these are communities in poor areas - it's completely not related to the cubicles that Besco sells. Besco sells atas commercial toilets to shopping centres, mostly in Singapore."

He also takes care to point out that he is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of Besco, having handed over those responsibilities to its general manager more than a decade ago.

"Business volumes haven't grown since then. When I left (Besco), it was a $17 million business. Today, it's $12 million, so it has actually gone smaller," says Mr Sim, who doesn't draw a salary from WTO and relies on other sources of income instead.

He receives $13,000 each month as Besco's chairman; he also makes about $20,000 per month from renting out three of his five properties.

"It's enough already, there's no need for too much money. This money is earned passively so I can devote my time to social work," notes Mr Sim.

WTO's activities - which cost about $600,000 each year and are run by nine staffers in Singapore - are funded by foundations and government grants. Mr Sim estimates that over the past 16 years, he has poured some $2.5 million of his own money into the cause.

With financial gain no longer a plausible ulterior motive, other cynics believe Mr Sim has political ambitions, and is trying to earn goodwill before running for office.

"They say, 'Since you're not making money from this toilet business, you're trying to build a good CV to join the PAP.' I just laugh at them lah," says Mr Sim.

Such speculation was further fuelled when he pursued a Master in Public Administration - his first degree at the age of 52 - from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. In 2011, his name was also floated as a possible Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), although he was not selected for the position.

"I wanted to be an NMP because there is no political party to follow and there is no constituency, yet you have a right to speak up. But in the end I think they found better candidates.

"If I were offered (the position) now, I think I'd have no time because now I want to be a professor," reveals Mr Sim, who is in the midst of settling arrangements to teach at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

In his upcoming role as an adjunct professor at the NUS Business School, Mr Sim plans to teach students about social entrepreneurship: "I want to mobilise students who will form the next generation of leaders for the social sector. I think (social work) is a very satisfying thing, but I want to prepare them for the real-life problems they may face on the journey."

Taming his ego

One such problem is the ever-present ego. "In humanitarian work, especially, if you know how to manage your ego, it can help you go a long way. But if your ego manages you, you are in big trouble," says Mr Sim.

The man speaks from experience.

"When I first started (my toilet work), it was not about altruism, but about face. I did it for fun. When I appeared on TV, I felt like a celebrity. I would call my friends to say, 'Watch me on TV tonight at 7.30pm'.

"I realised later on that I was getting sucked in the wrong way, and many social entrepreneurs do this. You start off wanting to do it for fun, then you realise you want to do good. Then you realise you're becoming famous, and then it starts to overcome you. And this is where you have to manage your ego.

"You have to tell yourself that this visibility and publicity is good for your mission, so keep up with it. But if it gets to your head, you're going to forget your mission," says Mr Sim.

With his shoe-less feet hitched up on his living room sofa, Mr Sim quotes Nietzsche: "The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to do in the first place."

Teaching the next generation of social entrepreneurs, he believes, will allow him to flag potential pitfalls: "I see a lot of NGOs who want to save the world. The problem is that once they've found their specialty, they don't want others to help them save the world. Instead of being mission-driven, they're now ego-driven.

"But everyone needs to realise that in social work, especially, there is no such thing as a competitor. The more people there are doing the same thing, the faster the problem will go away."

This philosophy extends even to his views on succession planning. In fact, Mr Sim believes there is little need to worry about the next WTO leader, as long as other groups continue to champion the global sanitation cause.

Does he not care if the WTO ceases to exist one day?

"You cannot be too attached," says Mr Sim. "As long as the problem is solved, I think who solved it doesn't matter."

kellytay@sph.com.sg


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