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Damian Chai is a man with a mission: To clean up public toilets in the country. He speaks to Tan Bee Hong
HIS shadow falls like a dire warning to shopkeepers and mall managements in Kota Kinabalu. Indeed, the moment they see Damian Chai or even his trusty Toyota in the vicinity, they automatically reach for their brushes and mops and clean their toilets.
Chai, national and Sabah vice chairman of the Quality Restroom Association Of Malaysia (QRAM) is relentless in his mission to clean up public toilets in the country.
A cleaning contractor for commercial buildings for 22 years, Chai, 53, is hard on those who do not meet his standards. “But it’s all for their own good,” he says.
QRAM was founded in 2005 by the late Datuk Robert Lau (also Deputy Transport Minister) who was inspired by the “toilet revolution” taking place in many countries, especially in Korea and Japan.
According to Chai, Lau was increasingly frustrated by the foul reputation of toilets and toilet habits in the country.
In 2001, a group of Japanese students on a tour of Malaysia, submitted a report to then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, saying that everything here was ichiban (the best) except for one thing — our toilets.
Dr Mahathir was so shocked that he insisted that something be done about it.
It’s not a subject that people like to discuss in public but Lau obviously felt it worth his time and in recognition his work, he earned the moniker “Toilet King of Malaysia”, given him by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
When he read about the setting up of QRAM, Chai was inspired to join the NGO as he felt the pressing need for a platform to air his views about toilet hygiene.
When Chai returned to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, after studying in Auckland, he bought a small cleaning company though he knew nothing then about the business.
But he learnt the trade fast and soon was contracted to clean 22 commercial buildings. He even took a course with the British Institute Of Cleaning Science which, he says, was recognised by “huge organisations such as Petronas and Shell”.
“They call us for everything, especially dirty toilets,” says Chai.
For now, he prefers the word toilet to restrooms as he feels that “one can hardly rest in our deplorable toilets”.
Then, when he read in the paper about the formation of QRAM, he contacted Lau to sign up. “Today, QRAM in KK has three units of mobile cleaners comprising five workers who go around to teach the proper way to clean toilets, and toilet etiquette. Everyone in KK knows about QRAM. We go to rural areas, to schools and we assist City Hall to give star ratings for toilets in commercial and corporate buildings,” he says.
In the last five years, he has seen a tremendous improvement in the condition of toilets in the capital of Sabah.
“We have to start somewhere and the best place is in schools. The QRAM Junior Club was formed for schools. Last year, KK won three prizes during the 1Malaysia National Clean Toilet Award Competition organised by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government,” he says.
“SMK Stella Maris was placed second in the secondary school category, SK Sri Gaya was placed third in the primary school category and Suria Sabah (complex) was placed third in the shopping complex category.
Chai feels that Sabah and Malacca have a higher standard compared with the rest of the country, where toilet cleanliness is concerned.
What are the criteria for the star rating given out by QRAM? There are seven points to observe, says Chai.
1. A hand dryer in working condition
2. Clean and dry floors and doors
3. Functioning flush system
4. Clean mirrors and soap
5. Air freshener
6. Toilet paper and dustbins provided
7. Proper ventilation (not air-conditioning).
The star ratings are hung on the toilet doors.
Chai laughs as he recalls how QRAM once caught a restaurant owner hanging chickens inside the toilet and it informed City Hall which came and closed down the establishment.
“When we see a dirty toilet, we will inform City Hall to inspect the place. The owner will be given two weeks to clean up their act or have their star rating removed. Having a clean toilet is to their advantage as customers would, obviously, prefer to go to an establishment with a higher star rating than one that has none,” says Chai.
No wonder that shopkeepers quake in fear and reach for their cleaning equipment as soon as they see Chai in the distance. Some shopkeepers tell him they don’t know how to clean the toilets.
“So we teach the bosses how to do it and then they have no more excuses,” says Chai, adding that QRAM also informs the shopowners about the criteria for star ratings, so they know what they have to do when the judges come around for the inspection.
Though he feels that QRAM has succeeded, to a point, in creating a clean toilet culture in Sabah, Chai admits that it’s just the start and that there’s a long, long way to go.
“There’s plenty of room for improvement but unfortunately, QRAM is not as effective as we’d like to be as there is no government budget for toilet cleanliness. We can only do so much given the resources we can get,” he adds.
Members meet every month to check on toilet cleanliness and they give talks to schoolchildren and parents at PTA meetings, about toilet hygiene.
On a recent toilet inspection trip to Korea organised by Woongjin Coway (M) , Chai was totally floored by what he saw. “I have not found a single dirty public toilet in Seoul and nearby Suwon City (also known as the Toilet Capital Of The World),” says Chai.
He was also impressed by the popular use of the bidet but unfortunately, he says, most toilets in Malaysia are of the squatting type.
“Malaysians use a pipe and hose but a bidet is more hygienic and contributes to a dry environment, especially the floors,” he adds.
For cleaner toilets
KOTA Kinabalu will play host to the World Toilet Association General Assembly this year from Nov 21-25. The WTA was founded by Suwon City congressman and one-time mayor, the late Sim Jae-duck who was totally passionate about instilling a clean toilet culture among the city folk.