Ah Singapore! Sweet relief

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worldsanitationLook who is loosening up. Singapore wants freedom of speech – on s***.

No offence meant. While the four-letter word, usually fudged by asterisks in print, did not escape the lips of the Singapore envoy, the message was clear. Singapore wants free and candid airing of privy problems to ensure everyone gets a proper shake in a restroom.

If you are not privy to this, you have been probably been following the news in the Straits Times.  To recap the news, Singapore’s first ever resolution was passed by the United Nations  last month  — to declare Nov 19 World Toilet Day. That made the front page of the Straits Times.

But here’s what it did not add. This is from the AFP report:

“I am sure there will be laughter among the press and the public when it is reported that the UN is declaring a World Toilet Day,” said Singapore charge d’affaires Mark Neo before a unanimous UN General Assembly vote in favour of the measure. “Their laughter is welcome, especially if they recognise the prevailing and unhealthy taboo that prevents an open and serious discussion of the problems of sanitation and toilets globally,” Neo told the 193-member assembly.

Note the words: “open and serious discussion” of …. Yes, s*** in a nutshell.

Unfortunately, it’s not always flushed away. There are still plenty of places where it dries in the bushes, bakes in the soil … yech! You don’t want to go there, but we can’t turn a blind eye to the problems of the millions of people who are still deprived of toilets.

That’s what the Singapore envoy said. And if anyone thinks it potty – this focus on fecal matters – that view is not shared by the UN General  Assembly. It voted unanimously for the Singapore resolution. For a good reason, too. As the resolution noted, of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. In addition, 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open.

Open-air defecation is “extremely harmful” to public health, the assembly noted. Ending open defecation will lead to “a 35 per cent reduction of diarrhoea, which results in over 750,000 deaths of children under five years of age every year,” said Neo.  He also pointed out that “without safe and private toilets women and girls face the threat of violence when they go out of their homes to relieve themselves”.

It is interesting that Neo was talking about problems – lack of toilets, open-air defecation –faced by other countries, not Singapore.

Does it mean Singapore is taking more interest in the lives of other people? For, after all, this was the first UN resolution proposed by Singapore.  How apt that the “Air-Conditioned Nation” should  propose a World Toilet Day!

While others talk of freedom and democracy, Singapore is concerned about health and hygiene.

The UN resolution could be seen as the Singapore addendum to the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights. The latter’s Article 25 says:  “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” The new resolution adds a specific , calling for better sanitation.

It’s a victory for Singapore’s “Mr Toilet” Jack Sim, who expressed relief at the UN resolution. “It feels like I won the Nobel Prize for sanitation,” he said. The World Toilet Organisation he founded in 2001 has celebrated November 19 as World Toilet Day all these years. Now the UN has joined the celebration, too, just as he wanted.

He duly thanked George Yeo, who made it possible. The former foreign minister impressed by his good work put him in touch with the foreign ministry, which helped him meet  the UN delegates in April. The rest, as they say, is history.  Nobody dumped on the Singapore motion for universal , healthy, hygienic toilet breaks.

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