As soon as I step into filmmaker Lily Zepeda’s apartment in Santa Monica, I nearly trip over a toilet that’s wedged by the doorway. There isn’t normally a toilet wedged by the doorway, but when Jack Sim is in town, you can never be sure what props he’ll bring along. “Whoops, yeah, watch out for that,” Zepeda tells me.
Draped over her couch is one of Sim’s favorites — a poop-emoji costume, replete with a grinning face. Elsewhere are boxes of postcards, each stamped with an image of Sim as a sort of James Bond figure — except instead of a silenced pistol, he’s holding up a plunger with a roll of toilet paper round its handle.
I look around, wondering where the actual Sim is. Then I hear a flush. From around the corner, he appears, smiling. “It’s almost like you choreographed it because you’re Mr. Toilet,” I exclaim.
“Hello!” he replies, completely ignoring my joke.
Sim is short in stature, and he speaks in a soft-spoken Singaporean lilt, his voice peaking higher when he gets excited. It’s hard to imagine this is the tireless cheerleader who has been stumping for toilets for two decades, all around the world, including in front of the U.N. But as depicted in Zepeda’s new documentary, Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man, the 62-year-old is an eternal spring of ideas and motivation. At any given time, Sim is working on a dozen projects, ranging from celebrity outreach to NGO negotiations to nuts-and-bolts fundraising for his nonprofit, the World Toilet Organization. Sim is kind of like the Steve Jobs of shit — singular, outrageous, visionary.
In 2001, Sim left behind a successful career of building and selling businesses in order to focus on an issue that perplexed him: That 2.4 billion people around the world didn’t have access to a toilet. The hygiene issues that arise with open defecation and untreated wasteways create millions of deaths and illnesses around the world, especially in rapidly developing countries like India and China.
Despite that, Sim argues that too many governments put toilets and waste treatment at the very bottom of their budget priorities. Even worse, the people who would benefit from new toilets often don’t accept the cost of building one, choosing to operate in the status quo. In the film, Sim says that his job isn’t to build toilets — it’s to convince people they need one, ASAP. (There’s a reason his two favorite words appear to be “shit” and “sexy.”)
“We’re working all the time to promote toilets and make people aware of their importance, influencing government to make public policy and drive demand. So we’re storytellers, really,” Sim tells me. “That’s why we fought to make the founding day of the World Toilet Organization into the U.N. World Toilet Day. That’s why we’re going back to Brazil for the World Toilet Summit. Two months ago, I was there for a hearing, and the senators who heard me were so moved they’re now introducing policy to prevent the pollution of the Amazon River from shit.”
The film doesn’t spare Sim from those who are critical of his freewheeling plans or childlike energy, and numerous people openly question the practical impact that the WTO has had. But you also can’t imagine any other individual putting in the time, investment and sheer emotion into this quite like Sim has. He’s a guy who will do a photoshoot as Toilet Bond (“Turn 007 around and it says ‘Loo,’” he observes in the movie) with the same vigor as when he confronts Indian government officials for, well, bullshitting about “approvals.”
“I don’t think he’s changed that much, other than the body just getting older and tired. He’s on the road more than half the entire year. I’m more than 20 years younger than him, and I don’t even know if I could handle his schedule,” Zepeda says. “But he hasn’t changed in the fact of still being like a child, still having urgency to solve problems, still answering at one in the morning if you call him, still coming to L.A. to do a premiere.”
That’s the least of it, given that Sim’s newest mission is to end global poverty by empowering the working poor to build businesses. Over the course of an hour, I sit with him in Zepeda’s apartment and attempt to unpack his life and motivations. In return, he bestows upon me the lessons he’s learned through his propensity to deal with shit — literally and figuratively, all around the world.
While growing up in Singapore, you saw firsthand how going to the bathroom meant something different for the rich versus the poor. How did this influence your work?
I was born in 1957, when our country was still very poor. It was only in 1966 that my family received public, low-cost housing that had a flushing toilet. Prior to that, we lived with the bucket system — common under British rule, where you would have to throw out buckets full of shit. In the villages everyone would be going to the same place and you saw this mixture of every color fluid, sanitary napkins everywhere. Flush toilets were luxury items. We even used newspaper as toilet paper, tearing it into little squares. My brother would joke, “When I grow up, I don’t want to be a politician, because people will wipe on my face.” [Laughs]
So when we moved into a new apartment, opened the door and saw a flush toilet, well, it was like we were rich. One of the problems is that some people don’t want a toilet. They’re used to open defecation. And because it’s such a normal thing in a place like India, everyone believes the behavior is normal, even when they face problems with smells, health, pollution or even women being in danger in the open.
What you have to do is start making people want to have a toilet. But if you speak rationally, only about 20 percent of people will really understand. The other 80 percent will still view a toilet as strange or unnecessary. So we make it fashionable, make it about dignity, pride and competing with your neighbor and creating fear of missing out. Emotions like jealousy, comparison, envy all become very important.
I saw on a television that rich people have flush toilets, and I don’t. That’s why I felt so high-class when we got a flush toilet. And I know if we build them for other people, they can feel the same way.
Something you say in the documentary is that you’ve always been “a little bit naughty,” and that you enjoy breaking the rules and thinking of new approaches. Where does this energy come from?
It’s nature. I’ve been like that all my life. I’m used to being punished. I was always joking around in class, and the teacher would say, “You stand outside.” I was always out there, and I never understood what was happening in school. So I failed everything. That was a good thing. I saved six years of not going to pre-university and university, and I started working toward making a business.
When did that happen?
At 24. By 40, I had 16 years of experience, and I started 16 businesses. One every year! So I started selling off everything, closing them down and thinking of retirement. If I hadn’t been naughty, I would’ve gotten a degree, been employed for a reasonable salary and maybe by 40 I’d get fired. Sometimes, things happen naturally and it looks bad, but actually it’s good.
But you didn’t retire. You ended up making the World Toilet Organization and going into NGO social work. When did you feel the urge to change direction so drastically?
Around 40. It was the midpoint of my life. I had four kids and a wonderful wife. I had enough money to live. So I thought, If I continue to make more money, it becomes a losing proposition in a way. You don’t exchange something precious like time for something of lower value, which is money. Time is the only currency that you spend and can’t save it up. So, it was urgent for me to ask, “What shall I say to myself on the last day?”
I saw a very simple thing that we take for granted be the cause of illness and death in countries not far from mine. And when I started the work, I realized there were a million things to do, a million ideas to sell about why shit is so important. I’ve stayed with a child-like mind about it. If you stay like a child, you continue to be awed by things and you ask simple questions that de-complicate problems.
You need to simplify thinking. The way I stayed motivated is that, I just feel every day is one less day I have. I do this countdown on my phone that shows me how many days before I go — my 80th birthday. And so now, I have 6,330 days.
How do you manage that feeling of urgency when you’re in a place like, say, India, where the film shows you running into both cultural and governmental roadblocks? How do you manage the fear of failure?
It’s not about me. It’s not about failure. Sometimes you have to be soft with your approach, and necessity drives the energy to keep doing it until it happens. It’s like when you have a child. You don’t have the option to ask, “Should I raise this child? Should I send him to school today? Should I feed him?” You have no choice.
That’s how I see my responsibilities. When you see a problem, and you take that problem as something to fix, then you own the problem. You don’t give up, because it’s not about you. It’s about the mission.
Is it hard to find like-minded people in your work?
No, they’re all different, and the most important thing is to find the people who want to solve the problem. If you partner with those people, everything becomes easier. It’s not about how easy or hard the government is, it’s about finding the right person in the government. You just have to keep trying until you find a person like that.
Prime Minister [Narenda] Modi created a plan to build 110 million toilets. We don’t know how many are built or being used. But that’s substantial. India was hard because it’s so big and so different. I saw communities with priorities to spend money on things like big festivals, and they cost a lot. Or to see people having cellphones before they even had a working toilet. We prioritize things through emotion, not just reason, and it fundamentally goes back to being recognized and accepted by others. So we have to make the toilet the same status as a phone. It means work like going to a village chief to get him or his wife to brag about a new toilet, and getting the village gossip to pressure others into wanting one, too.
Were things easier in China, both with the standards of living but also the fact that you’re closer culturally to the people? The movie portrays these rural projects as a win for WTO.
Speaking the local language helps a lot, and there’s not so much open defecation in China, just bad toilet systems. But the presidency is the champion of the toilet in China, and that’s amazing, because in China it’s all top-down. Anything the president says, people are going to do. So they’ll clean up their act very, very fast. I’ve already seen tourism toilets improve tremendously over the last three or four years, in cities all over China. They used to be so bad.
Remember, 4.5 billion people in the world don’t get their sewage treated. That’s a really big number, and it’s happening in developed countries, too. You go to Skid Row in Houston, San Francisco or any other big city in the U.S., and you see open defecation. So America is a first-world country, but still with third-world problems for many of its citizens.
There’s a dramatic moment in the movie when, after a lot of time and money spent in India, the WTO board decides to quit over what they say are too many ideas or a lack of focus in your direction. What did that moment mean to you?
Well, it’s true. I have a lot of things I want to do. However, I need a board that can catch up. A lot of board members are the kind of people who, when we run out of money, they quit. Another type is, their personal reputation is more important than the work. Then keep in mind that NGO committees, you really have to be working together daily in order to be on the same page, not just once in a while.
I’ve run out of money many times, and every time, I just put a personal loan for it. So I’m not really shocked when people laugh. It’s normal. In the NGO world, there are a lot of situations like that. In the business world, you see a problem and someone who will pay to fix that problem, and you start a business. In NGOs, you see a problem, nobody is willing to pay for that problem, but you start an NGO anyway. [Laughs]
But if there’s nobody in charge with a mission, it’s easy for someone else to take over, and it will collapse. Someone needs to be the father of the baby. I work for free, and I’m here to stay. The board likes to say, “Don’t do anything unless you have money.” But that means we waste time.
We wasted a lot of time and money with India, partly because [the board] employed too many people. They employed nine. Today we have two-and-a-half: a general manager, a China manager and a part-time finance manager. Then there’s me. The board is smaller, and they all take part in the work for free. When you’re thinking about it every day, you understand the issue. You grow the impact rather than the staff size — if you grow overheads, then you’re at a high burn rate. That’s risky.
One of the biggest themes in Mr. Toilet is your restlessness. Your family understands you’ll never be the domestic dad that sits at home. You’re even now leading a 65,000-square-foot “World Trade Center for the Poor” in Singapore to help connect those in poverty with services and space to build their own businesses. Where does it end?
The truth is, I try about 40 things at any one time. And something will work, and the rest will not. For the ones that don’t work, I’ll leave them as works in progress. I can keep them on a leash and come back. But if you try 40 things, usually two or three things work.
For some people, the mental space of 40 projects at the same time is overwhelming. I have a lot more: There’s a musical I want to discuss with someone in L.A.; I’m on this press tour with Lily; I’m going to the World Toilet Summit in Brazil; I’m writing a Bollywood film called Life Without Toilets; my startup team invented a colorectal cancer detection toilet in San Francisco; I just invested in a shoe for children growing up in slums. And yes, I have to figure out the revenue model for the World Trade Center for the Poor. It all has to be done very urgently, and because I’m going to die, I better do more.
A lot of people don’t understand how I’m okay with that feeling. But I try not to stress because when I’m on one task, the rest of my brain’s RAM isn’t accessed. My head is empty of other things. You just keep going, and when things start to work, you feel encouraged to do some more. The toilet is a good place to find that feeling. And a lot of our best ideas come from the toilet, including for me.