Toilet terrorists?

Protestors making their point during World Toilet Day in New Delhi.

LAST Tuesday, the world celebrated World Toilet Day. Yes you read that right: celebrating toilets is a recognised UN day to highlight the basic need of proper sanitation.

The World Toilet Organisation was founded by Singaporean Jack Sim (I’m serious!) in 2001 when he realised than more than 40% of the world’s population still do not have access to basic sanitation. According to him, “I was looking around for neglected subjects and I found toilets – toilets are so unspeakable – so to make it palatable, I added humour. The Acronym WTO is a pun to World Trade Organisation and it works wonders with the media.”

Whilst some countries are still grappling with the issue of sanitation – every year, one million children under five die from food-borne illnesses such as diarrhoea – we can consider ourselves lucky that in most part of Malaysia, we have access to proper toilets and a working sewerage system. Yet, our attitude towards our toilets is less than desirable. 

Toilets are a somewhat taboo subject – I’m sure some of us have been in a situation where the flush doesn’t work in a public toilet and it’s all clogged up, so the next best thing to do is to pull down the seat cover and walk out as innocently as possible and let the next person deal with it. After all, it’s a situation that’s outside of our control; more of a maintenance issue.

But let me talk a bit about those habits that can be controlled.

Babies are adorable and all, but their crap is as nasty as an adult’s. In some public toilets, where there is no diaper room provided, some “enlightened” mothers would use the wash basin to wash their babies’ excrement.

Once, I was using the ladies’ in the departure hall of an airport, and in front of me was a mother washing her baby’s bottom without remorse while a tourist was using the basin next to her. I was so embarrassed for fellow Malaysians that I didn’t dare look up. When I walked out, I passed the tourist again and overheard her telling her friend about her restroom experience. Needless to say, we didn’t paint a pretty picture.

Protestors making their point during World Toilet Day in New Delhi.

When I told my friend about the bum-washing mother, he said that some men wash their members in the wash basin. “So you can see it?” I asked gleefully. My colleague signed off with a cheeky: “Confucius say, man in bathroom with tool in hand is not necessarily a plumber.” 

Hopefully, that practice may not occur as often these days, as many urinals are now equipped with flowing water. So what do these gentlemen do instead? They cup the water and splash it onto their little ones. God knows where the water has been though... 

And ladies, please, if you want to use the water hose, just clean yourself up and not the whole floor too! It does not only make it more dirty, but slippery floors are a hazard. How many times have any of you almost slipped in a public toilet?

Our toilet methods are quite baffling. Squatting toilets are a standard for Malaysians – in the villages, extra cement to build a sitting toilet can be costly – and I’ve even been to a toilet that is on stilts above water with a small hole on the wooden planks. Yes, you know where your stuff goes! 

Yes there are squatting toilets, and then there are sitting toilets. So if it’s the latter, what do you do? You sit on it. It irks me to the max seeing a toilet seat with dirty footprints all over. Some are even cracked!

I reckon toilet paper must have been a new addition since we don’t really use it. They either end up on the wet floor or clogging the jamban. We do, however, like to depend on the water hose or the classic pail and bucket.

And although we do wash ourselves – thoroughly, until the seat is all wet – it seems like we don’t like to dry ourselves. My colleague from Ecuador made a careful observation when using public restrooms.

She would hear the person next to her wash, but realise that none of the cubicles were equipped with toilet paper.

“So, how do they dry themselves? Do they carry tissue paper in their bag?”

“I hardly think so. They’ll just pull up their panties. They will eventually dry.”

Washing ourselves is one way to maintain hygiene, but I imagine walking around in damp panties, especially in our hot climate, can be pretty uncomfortable. It can also encourage the growth of yeast, which leads to itchy infections. In other words, keeping ourselves dry is as important as washing regularly.

I suppose when we have plenty of it, we tend to abuse it. We are blessed to be equipped with access to clean water and functioning toilets (well, count our lucky stars for the ones that do function!), but how many times do we leave the tap running? Or if it’s broken, how many of us actually made a complaint or a report? 

We wet the floors; we leave shoeprints on the toilet seats; we leave diapers and unwrapped sanitary pads in the cubicles; we often forget to flush (it’s not funny when the flush does work!); we leave tissue paper everywhere.

Maybe we think that there will be other people to clean up our mess. But what’s more baffling is that some paid public toilets are in worse condition than the free ones!

I have been in a lot of toilets. I have been in posh ones, Japanese ones, hole-on-the-floor ones, free ones, paid ones. Our toilet habit is one of the many Malaysian mysteries I have yet to solve. Public toilets are an indicator of quality. How often do we size up a place by checking its toilets first? Trust is built once we approve of its toilet.

But more importantly, our toilet habits are really a reflection of the kind of society we really are. We take shortcuts – we think just enough is good enough.

It may not be a big deal to some, but it’s a big deal as to how foreigners perceive us. Even if we don’t care about perception and image, at least care about the next person in line. Many times, I’ve lost the urge to go and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

Here’s to better toilet facilities and toilet habits. Happy World Toilet Day.

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at

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Toilet terrorists?


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