Malaysian public toilets don't have the best reputation.
More often than not, the mere words "Malaysian public toilets" conjure up an image of a dirty, wet and smelly bathroom.
Quite a few Malaysians had this to say, when asked what they thought about our local public toilets.
"Disgusting. Stinky and dirty."
"Vile. Would not approach without a Hazmat suit."
Recruiter Royce Cheah says the dirtiest toilet he has ever encountered was at a police station a few years back.
"It was flooded and overflowing with faeces and urine. It was like some sewage backwash happened that day," he says.
Communications executive Amy Lee (not her real name) recalls once entering a public restroom, and seeing a rat run out from the latrine.
"Needless to say, I ran out… and I'm never using that toilet again.
"But to be absolutely fair, some public toilets are pretty decent. Some of the restrooms at the rest areas along the highways have improved over the years," she says.
Toilets are essential to human living
Having access to clean and safe toilets is a basic human right - this is precisely what the World Toilet Organisation (WTO) aims to highlight with the World Toilet Day, which is celebrated every Nov 19.
In its website, WTO says it created World Toilet Day in 2001 "to raise global awareness of the struggle 2.6 billion face every day without access to proper, clean sanitation. It also brings to the forefront the health, emotional, and psychological consequences the poor endure as a result of inadequate sanitation".
Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) communications head Azzatullina Pawanchik agrees.
"Having access to toilets is a basic human right… a place to go when you need to relieve yourself, and this place has to work properly. It should not contaminate your surroundings and it should not bring diseases into your home.
"Your toilet should be a place that protects you and your family from your waste, and from waterborne diseases. A proper toilet should be connected to a proper sewerage infrastructure," she says.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 46 per cent of people worldwide had no access to "improved sanitation" in 1990.
"By 2008 this had been reduced to 38 per cent and is projected to fall to 33 per cent by 2015, while the MDG (Millennium Development Goal) target is to bring this down to 23 per cent of the projected world population of 7.3 billion.
"Even if this target is met, 1.7 billion people will remain without access. The WHO/Unicef programme projects that by 2015, 2.4 billion people will lack 'improved sanitation' and 1.1 billion of those people will still defecate in the open," WHO states in an article titled In the market for proper sanitation.
While many may not realise it, the modern sewerage network system originates from England.
Council for British Archaeology (CBA) London, in its article The 'Great Stink' of London, records that in the 18th century, London depended on cesspits to collect the human pee and poo of its residents.
There were over 200,000 in 1810, to be found in the basement of most houses, and they had to be emptied by night soil men who shovelled up the waste and took it away in carts. Most cesspits were not watertight, so the contents seeped out and into the wells which people used for drinking water.
From about 1830, one of the most fashionable improvements to people's houses was a flushing water-closet (WC). Similar to modern toilets, it used more water, which made the cesspools fill quicker and flood more easily, polluting the rivers.
In Malaysia, opening a new latrine doesn't cost much, says Quality Restroom Association Malaysia (QRAM) public affairs chairman Sharifah Suzana Simmonds.
"It's cheap. A squatting pan and a plastic cistern may only cost around RM60 to RM80," she says.
However, an individual septic tank would cost between RM2,000 (S$778) to RM3,000, while a connection to a public sewer would cost around RM3,000 to RM5,000, adds Azzatullina.
"IWK serves about 20.5 million Malaysians. Our operations cover about 80 per cent in peninsular Malaysia. We do not operate in Kelantan, Johor Baru, Pasir Gudang, and in Sabah and Sarawak. Sewerage there is maintained by their local authorities.
"We maintain and manage the connected sewage pipelines and the public sewage treatment plants. As for homes with individual septic tanks, the homeowners have to arrange for their septic tanks to be de-sludged once every two years (by professionals) ," Azzatullina says.
She adds that IWK faces two major problems - escalating cost of operations, and people's attitude.
"We spend about RM100mil a year on electricity as our plants need a lot of electricity.
"Our operations cost has increased by about 315 per cent over a period of 17 years, and our total cost has gone up by 414 per cent over the same period of time. Yet our tariff is still as when we started in 1997," Azzatullina says.
IWK charges a domestic rate of RM8 per month, while low-cost homes pay a rate of RM2 per month.
"People, your toilet is not your rubbish disposal. You're not supposed to flush all kinds of things down the sewerage network. The system can only handle human waste, not cooking oil, grease, foetuses etc.
"We know of cases where people have opened up their manholes and dumped in bicycles, mattresses, construction waste… these things block up your sewerage system. Believe me, the smell is just the tip of the iceberg. Raw sewage is considered bio-hazardous material, and if you come into contact with it, you can fall ill," she says.
Sharifah Suzana believes that in Malaysia, what should take precedence is having good toilet design, proper toilet hygiene and increased public awareness.
"We believe we need to re-educate our young Malaysians on how to use a toilet," Sharifah says.
"It's the end user… you have to be responsible for your own self. Even in a public toilet, it is our responsibility to make sure our toilets are clean.
"If you flush after you're done, all the better for the next person. We shouldn't wait for the authorities to fine us to do our civic duty," she says.
Perhaps, the most pertinent question to ask (as posed by WTO) is: Do you give a s**t?