NOVEMBER 20 — I was by the highway, her headlights guiding me around the motorbike lane and to a drain, so I could relieve my bladder. It was not intended, but a midnight traffic jam due to roadworks had turned our scheduled 30-minute drive into a longer adventure which was not factored in my “I can wait for the next rest stop” equation.
So I pissed at the side of a road.
Walking back to the vehicle, I was expecting an embarrassing observation about men, or worst me, from her but instead she quipped, “It is really easy for you guys eh, you can just pick a spot.”
I did not just pick a spot, but I understood her point.
In Malaysia today, it is quite the challenge, finding a functioning toilet let alone one that does not make you blush when you have to direct a tourist to it. Being a man, it is harder to imagine the personal hell women in this country go through outside the home and office when it comes to finding a toilet.
The fact it is not nearly a national issue can be down to male dominance of public life and policy, and also the lack of a practical checklist to bring the country forward in the 21st century.
The woman issue
It is a long time since a band of feminist debaters slated me for not sating their female representation expectations at an intervarsity competition in a corridor of my university.
Their worries are infinitesimal compared to non-existent effective and implementable public health policies in Malaysia — yup a shout-out to Denggi and food poisoning — regarding working toilets.
Toilets in all nations can be better in some areas, segments and spaces, but Malaysians will always struggle to find another nation with facilities as awful as ours, with qualification. It’s astonishing when comparing the façade of Malaysian buildings and the state of their toilets — the disparities are mind-numbing.
While men can survive horror stories, women are virtually incapacitated by low access to decent toilets.
This causes two things, women holding their bladder far longer than they should do or them not consuming an adequate amount of water so that they do not need to use the facilities. Both choices, with the latter preferred, will lead to medical complications if persisted upon.
There should be a study to show the level of harm long term for women in Malaysia who fall under the behavioural complex of either containing their bladder too much or refusing sufficient hydration.
Bladder incontinence, kidney stones, kidney failure, hypotension, muscle spasm and Cystic Fibrosis are just some of the medical conditions resulted by such behaviour. There are millions of Malaysian women compromising their health because there is no progressive policy to increase the access of clean and working toilets to them in public spaces.
Philistines at the cubicles?
From time to time, governments do say that facilities are only as good as they are cared for.
A generation of young Malaysians will struggle to remember the days of people lining up at public telephone booths till midnight to use them. Many claimed the phones were never enough, the government claimed that vandalism and petty thefts put paid to real efforts to build telecommunication.
It is similar to toilets, except today most people have mobile phones, whereas there is little chance of letting people have personal portable toilets.
So, are locals ruining the facilities? There might be truth in it. I won’t belabour the political reality argument, that perhaps the constant re-emphasises that the rakyat live a life well thanks to the blessings of those in power does perversely enforce a belief that public goods do not belong to the public. They belong to those who govern the public and therefore our Joe Public does not have to assume responsibility for the facilities.
A discussion of citizens using common facilities can never be had without evaluating the levels of civic and general health education in public schools. Most citizens are certain to benefit from public education and the state has the most number of opportunities to raise the debate on common use in those campuses.
Based on the level of cleanliness in public schools around the country, it appears it is desperately failing. If the first place outside your home which you spend the most hours in has terrible latrines it does things to the general psyche of the students. Whether it is learnt helplessness, or hopeless acceptance or denial of reality, it sets the tone for all our futures.
There are examples of Japanese schools requiring their students to assist in cleaning their own toilets. India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has challenged Indian CEOs to build 2,000 facilities for schoolgirls across the sub-continent.
Singapore stuck to a prolonged public policy on toilets and cleanliness without any lapse for decades and the people who are most like us outside Malaysia have a toilet culture that is far better than ours.
Economics and politics
I started working on this column at a posh shopping centre with a great view of the new Agong’s palace. When I went to the washroom, two out of the three urinals were covered with garbage bags — local janitor speak to indicate they cannot be used — and the remainder of the latrine in an unimpressive state.
Did management spend enough on latrines, or are they comforted that toilets are just cost centres they can choose to ignore? Would “pay to use” toilets do better? Then how to explain the lavatories in cities like Manila where most of its residents are poor but the toilets are free and usually in far better shape than ours?
Or is it politics? Local councils, governmental department and other agencies. No one really gets closed down because their loos suck.
If not, I’m lost for answers in a spectrum of toilets where the mamak restaurants have nasty ones; the shopping centres keeping theirs as afterthoughts; sports stadiums apologising that they can’t cope with that many people that quick so the urinals overflow; airports with disappointing latrines with no airport tax refunds because of them; and universities without toilet paper or soap, and if you are really lucky, no water.
Are latrines so unsexy for our policy makers that they rather see them literally rot and the people with them?
We are making millions sick
I stretched the truth before this. Not all of Singapore is pristine. If you wanted to get to the Malaysian border cheap from the central business district, you can take the MRT train north to Kranji Station and then hop on a bus to the checkpoint. The toilets at the MRT station — that MRT station — can be better.
It is debatable whether the cleanliness levels drop because it is away from the Singaporean seat of government and business centre or that there are many foreigners ― mostly Malaysians ― transiting there.
My memory serves me unwell recollecting that a city radio station declared one of my school’s washrooms to be the dirtiest in the capital in the 80s. Perhaps it was a striking example because housing one of the oldest clock towers in the country, and at the same time having a pathetic toilet unmanaged as funding did not match the size of the school was too much not to mention.
However all that pales to the simple fact that millions of Malaysian women who expect to be out of their homes and offices are exhibiting negative behaviours because they lack toilets to use.
I’ve been wanting to write about toilet access for some time. When I did start yesterday, I looked for some facts and found out that it was (yesterday, November 19) World Toilet Day. How about that? Even mysterious forces in the universe feel that this has to be said.
For the sake of the women especially, I hope our politicians are reading.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.