50 years of sanitation in Singapore

Singapore is celebrating its golden jubilee this year – marking 50 years of independence. Singapore’s metamorphosis from a developing country with poor sanitation to one of the world’s cleanest countries in this time is a model we can all adopt for better environmental quality and public health.

At 58 this year, Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organization, has witnessed firsthand a greater quality of life for Singaporeans through the progress of toilets and sanitation over the last 50 years.

In the 1960s, under the British rule, Singapore was a polluted, congested city where open defecation was rampant. “It was very traumatic as a child to look down at all of the 50 shades of brown in the bucket, as well as used sanitary napkins and intestinal worms crawling while big green flies buzzed around,” recalls Jack Sim.

During this period, Singapore practised two types of toilet system in the urban and rural areas. In the urban area, household waste was collected in a bucket under a hole in a squat toilet. The buckets were filled with soil to minimise the odour and collected mainly at night to be transported to collection centres.

In the rural area, pit latrines were located outside and shared by a number of families. It consisted of a drop hole in the ground, a slab over the hole and shelter. Once the pit was full, the waste was emptied manually and disposed directly into nearby waterways. Public health suffered due to poor sanitation and hygiene practices from frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever and diarrhoea.

nightsoil   Outhouse SG

With the advancements of the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System to optimise land space and Housing Development Board to provide improved public housing, Singaporeans had moved into their new flats with a flush toilet, which was considered a luxury.

One of the fundamental factors contributing to Singapore’s progression is the focus on public health based on a “clean and green” strategy. It took 10 years to clean up the Singapore River that was polluted from heavy boat traffic, untreated animal and human waste. In 1974, PUB had built a wastewater treatment plant and spearheaded the recycling of used water into potable and industrial water.

By the 2000s, Singapore progressed steadily with the completion of NEWater plant and Marina Barrage. Singapore’s advancement in water treatment technologies and innovative water management has turned their rivers into reservoirs for sustainable water supply.

By foscusing on the prevention of diseases and providing clean water and sanitation, Singapore created a healthy, productive workforce ready for international business and commerce.

Founded on 19 November 2001, World Toilet Organization (WTO) is a proudly Singapore-founded and based global non-profit organisation working towards a world with a clean, safe toilet and sanitation for everyone, everywhere at all times.

In celebration of Singapore’s golden jubilee WTO has installed a sculpture and storyboard at the iconic East Coast Park to highlight the transformation of Singapore’s toilet facilities dating back to the 1890s and the determination and innovations required by our leaders to improve our sanitation facilities.


Singapore’s role as a leader in the global sanitation movement has changed toilet and sanitation as social taboo into a topic of discussion. Singapore’s approach to cleanliness has helped to shape its journey from a third world country to a first world paradise with a high standard of sanitation and hygiene practice.

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly supported the joint initiative between the Government of Singapre and WTO’s “Sanitation for All” resolution. It was adopted by all 193 country members to officially commemorate 19 November as UN World Toilet Day.

Access to a clean and safe toilet is a basic human right yet 2.5 billion people on this planet lack access to sanitised toilets, defecating in the open and are left vulnerable to illness, poverty and abuse.

Help us bring the standard of sanitation and toilet facilities Singaporeans experience to the world by donating to World Toilet Organization to raise awareness of the need for action to end the sanitation crisis.

Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore & Bels Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore


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