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Sanjay’s Story: Loo and Behold

Traveling around Asia I got quite used to holding my breath when I’d use the restrooms at bus stops, museums and even some of the seedy guesthouses I stayed in.

With the big exception of Singapore of course. From the first loo I used at the airport to every other I walked into while I was there, I was amazed at the thoughtful design elements and impeccably clean interiors. Really, I probably sound like a deprived third world citizen, but after Vietnam, Cambodia and even Indonesia… it was quite literally a breath of fresh air!

I found that Singaporeans have a strong sense of civic responsibility. Even if that’s driven by a threat of heavy fines, it does make for a pretty organized, clean and alleviated city experience. There are signs and television adverts everywhere, repeatedly warning people about the consequences of littering, selling chewing gum or breaking the rules of Singapore customs at the airport.
It’s not just intimidation that brings out the best in people though. It’s pragmatic sensitization and education from an early age.

One particular organization caught my attention while I was there. It’s called the Restroom Association and was established by Jack Sim- the founder of World Toilet Organization. As their name suggests- they’re in the toilet business. The organization works with Community, Outreach and Education, Research Development and Training and Standards for restrooms all over Singapore.

I spent a good part of the day with Sanjay Balan from Restroom Association. As Manager of Outreach & Education, Sanjay engages the communities with innovative programmes and activities that get the message across and are sustainable.

He works with public, private and people sectors to ‘raise the standards of the entire restroom value chain’. He personally visits schools for talks and demonstrations about proper toilet etiquette and standards. In educating the students, he ensures that they will be demanding in their expectations off their school and mindful of their own conduct.

“One of our goals is to ensure that at least 70% of Singapore’s public restrooms have a 3 Star Happy Toiliet ranking by end of 2010. A star grading initiative for public toilets which focuses on Design, Cleanliness and Maintenance,” he said.

Sanjay believes that the ‘toilet training’ serves a far greater purpose than just the short-term benefits. “It teaches the students about mutual respect. To give it, ensures that it’s returned. It’s a small step in making them more aware and responsible citizens, sharing, being thoughtful of others and knowing their rights and demanding them too.”

I can tell that he means it. Sanjay is a 3rd generation Singaporean. His parents are of Indian origin. Growing up in such a multi-enthnic society like Singapore, it’s crucial to foster respect and a unified sense of national pride and civic responsibility.

Toilets and National Pride? Is she crazy? Possibly. But the way I look at it, it’s all connected. Being a responsible and informed citizen might start with an introduction to good toilet manners and standards. They learn to be mindful of their own behaviour and hold the deviants accountable. This will reflect in their conduct outside of the Loo as well. Catch them young and watch them grow!

The reason I feel so strongly about this subject is probably because my dad got transferred every two and a half to three years. By the time I’d settle into a place and finally make some friends, it was time to leave again. I just accepted it as a regular part of life and dealt with it- sometimes begrudgingly and sometimes like a new adventure. I’ve attended Convents, Public schools, Central and State Government schools and Army Schools. I’ve sat next to and shared my lunch with classmates from every state, religion and socio-economic background in the country.

I have terrible memories from the government schools; especially how filthy the toilets were. I remember a particular central government school where my classroom was right next to the boy’s toilet. That toilet stank like a sewer, as did my classroom. The students were expected to just deal with it. It did get cleaned once a day but then it stank of cleaning chemicals. Acid, Phenol and industrial cleaners can be as overwhelming as you know what.

The toilets were dingy and barely enough for the over crowded school. The facilities were less than basic and hygiene was low priority for an establishment that didn’t even have running water or a filtered water dispenser for the students.

Even as a pre-teen, I was appalled how the school principal and administrators turned a blind eye to the situation. Being a government establishment- accountability was low and like most of the places my father was posted to… often the only school in the district. And I’ve lived in places you’ve probably never heard of.

A lot of my classmates were from impoverished families. And the subsidized government school was the only education they could afford. The teachers were tardy, the school’s sports equipment was battered, the laboratories were bare and the toilets were mosquito-infested holes.

No student deserves to seek an education in such an environment.

I was one of the lucky few. I had a way out. My parents eventually packed me off to an Army run boarding school, which is one of the best in the country. I’ve often wondered how my classmates from the Government schools fared in life. They were constantly ordered up to ‘shut up and deal with it’. Eventually believing that what they got was all that they deserved. Most of my friends from that time will live their lives as passive citizens who will seldom question authority. No one told them they could.

A dirty toilet isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom of a much bigger issue. We could have really used a guide like Sanjay, telling us about clean toilets but really teaching us about accountability and responsibility.

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21 Responses to “Sanjay’s Story: Loo and Behold”

  1. Abhi says:

    awesome work! these small initiatives put together build a strong nation. larger nations have a lot to learn from smaller nations.

  2. Bhavesh says:

    tithiya – i am not convinced with your analogy abt singapore, its also the fun extinguisher of Asia. there are two sides to every story.

  3. George Bartlett says:

    WTO also started the world’s first World Toilet College to provide training in toilet design, maintenance and school sanitation. really neat work! congratulations to Mr Jack Sim, Sanjay and team

  4. Mona says:

    what a hilarious name! WTO! kudos!

  5. RayPatt3 says:

    tithiya: you must realize that singaproe is just a small, beautifully-decorated fish bowl which cannot be replicated in a big sea. i dont think you shd look at this isolation.

  6. Sanjot Dalvi says:

    i do believe that citizens in singapore CHOSE to give up their personal freedoms in return for prosperity and if the rest of the world isnt careful, the same could happen to them.

  7. mahesh joshi says:

    @bhavesh for the criticsm and dislike of singapore, you need need to know that thanks to discpline and meddling by the singapore govt or instituted by it, singapore is asias most stress-free travelling experience. actually its pretty much the safest in the world

  8. Jash Sayani says:

    Singapore is China without the spitting, India without thugs selling you trinklets and the only place in asia where the cabbies take you where you want for an officially metered fare. most of us would be happier in singapore than anywhere else.

  9. Tithiya says:

    @everyone: when did this become a singapore model versus the rest of the world debate? really. WTO is head quartered in Singapore but has presence in over 50+ countries through a large network of partner organizations. I never meant to suggest that Singapore has the “best governance” model. But surely, there are worthy ideas in what they have done right.

  10. rajarshi banerjee says:

    the west is simply obsessed with being the altar of purist sort of democracy. i think the singapore governance model works really well.

  11. Craig says:

    i heard they have strict laws for homosexuality, so did brokeback mountain make it to the theatres there?

  12. jiten kulkarni says:

    with the anti-singapore government comments already on the blog, maybe they will block access to it shortly! @tithiya, hope you make it out of there on time!!!! :-D

  13. Matt says:

    do you guys know that in singapore fat children are separated from their classmates and ordered to do more exercising until they lose weight? cmon now! i think the debate is over.

  14. vikrant gujral says:

    singapore has the lowest crime rate in the world. u guys are just baseless critics.

  15. Priyanka says:

    Tithi u r on a mission to introduce the world to heroes, why r people diverting from the mission n turnin into a public spat of which country’s better than the other.
    u go girl….do what u’ve gone to do…..
    love your journey n awaiting more stories to come….
    hugs n kisses

  16. amit jaswani says:

    now seriously, when did this post become about governance?

  17. idris says:

    its a great cause that this organization is taking forward, sanitation is possibly the most under rated but important piece of the civilization.

  18. Mohan VK says:

    reminds me of my 5th class at kv malleswaram with dirty toilets next to the class rooms. gawd awful conditions!

  19. Santhan says:

    singaporeans dont have a strong sense of responsiblity, they are just scared shitless

  20. Sudhir Sood says:

    WTO… lolz, hasnt the world trade organization sued them yet?

  21. Hoshie99 says:

    there are other people as well doing similar notable work. in africa, a gentleman called David Kuria’s runs “toilet malls” for of thousands of customers in Nairobi’s densely populated Kibera neighborhood. check out this boing boing article http://www.boingboing.net/2010/08/26/changing-attitudes-a.html

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