SINGAPORE – Mr Jack Sim’s days are numbered.
The Singaporean businessman turned sanitation champion runs a countdown app on his phone with an “expiry date” set for March 3, 2037, when he turns 80.
As at Sunday (Dec 13), he has 5,925 days left to be, as he says, a useful person.
Having founded the non-profit World Toilet Organisation (WTO) in November 2001, which he conservatively estimates as having impacted a billion people worldwide, Mr Sim is now – at 63 – also devoting his energies to the larger agenda of global poverty.
Some may dismiss him as an oddball with cash to burn, but veteran diplomat Tommy Koh describes Mr Sim as a “treasure of Singapore and the world” in his congratulatory message for a book to mark the WTO’s 20th anniversary next year .
The book, still in its draft stage, also features written plaudits from Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and more.
Prof Koh was inducted into the WTO’s Hall of Fame last week (Dec 10), alongside Swedish diplomat Jan Kenneth Eliasson, United Nations official Uschi Eid of Germany and Japanese non-profit Nippon Foundation.
“I’m very grateful to Jack for this recognition of my small efforts to make available modern sanitation to all the people of the world,” Prof Koh, who co-chairs the Asian Development Bank’s advisory committee on water and sanitation, told The Straits Times.
Mr Sim recalls how the ambassador-at-large’s support from the start – including introducing him to key UN members – eventually led to the world body, in 2013, designating Nov 19 as its official World Toilet Day.
Hailing this as a turning point in conferring legitimacy on the WTO and its cause, Mr Sim points out that ambitious national toilet projects in India and China were launched soon after, endorsed by their respective leaders Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping.
“It’s not just a water issue – it’s a health, productivity, environment, tourism, education issue and a gender one when girls cannot go to school because there’s no place to change sanitary napkins,” he says.
World Health Organisation figures from last year show that a third of the global population still lacks access to safe sanitation overall, with some 2 billion deprived of basic facilities like latrines.
Mr Sim’s efforts to raise awareness, through events and tireless lobbying of public and private sector forces worldwide, are aided by a consistent glut of media coverage centred on his unabashed persona.
This includes a feature-length documentary titled “Mr Toilet: The World’s #2 Man”, which premiered last year and can be watched on the Amazon Prime Video platform.
“The idea is to have sanitation eventually become a subject you can talk about over lunch,” he says. “If you can talk about sex, you should talk about going to the toilet – because you go to the toilet more often than you have sex.”
The WTO runs on sponsorships and donations, with about $2 million garnered over the last two decades going into operating costs like the salaries of two staffers.
Mr Sim does not pay himself. He achieved financial freedom at 40 after selling off a clutch of profitable businesses, but says he derives far more satisfaction from his lavatory legacy.
The only concern is succession, with Mr Sim not expecting his four kids – named Faith, Earth, Truth, Worth; and all in their 20s – to follow in his steps, or any Singaporean for that matter.
But there is no time to dwell on it, he says, given the urgency to solve another, more pressing global problem: Poverty.
To that end, Mr Sim has founded an NGO to support businesses in communities at what he terms the “base of the pyramid”, and put $10 million into building a facility in the Ubi area which he envisions as a future “World Trade Centre for the poor”.
Already, there is a treadmill of projects, from teaming up with Brazilian corporates to develop their northern city of Recife, to signing a memorandum of understanding with NUS Enterprise – the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore – to collaborate on social innovation projects.
“Isn’t it ridiculous, that with even fewer days left (to turning 80) compared to when I started the WTO, I want to achieve an even bigger impact?” he muses. “But there’s only one lifetime, and I don’t have much time left to serve.”
Mortality, with the clock ticking down in his pocket, is evidently Mr Sim’s driving force. Yet he is not particularly religious or in ill shape.
“I don’t exercise, I don’t have the time. But I’m healthy because I’m happy,” he says. “And I’ve discovered that I’m happy when I care for other people.”
The goal is as simple as trying to leave behind a world better than before, he says. And fixing a date on his departure, even if just a symbolic one, has helped him go about that fearlessly; while also searching for answers to a question he asks himself daily:
“What do you want to say to yourself on the last day of your life?”
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