Squatting in Singapore

Squatting in Singapore

Squat toilet  © 2010 by Todd Mecklem

Every new expat experiences what I call the Dorothy Moment (so named in honour of the sweet young thing who famously suspected she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.) It’s that second of blinding clarity when it becomes apparent that they sure do things differently here.

Our first week in Singapore had been full of surprises, but nothing made us realize we were truly in Asia as much as our first encounter with the squat toilet.

As any mother of young children knows, regular bathroom visits are the key to family harmony and good (maternal) mental health. There’s nothing more annoying than having to pull over for an emergency pee break five minutes after heading out in the car, usually when you’re late for something important. So being the conscientious mother that I am, I made sure we stopped off at the public toilets before we headed home that day.

(While we’re on the subject, I have to say it took us a while to get used to calling the bathroom “the toilets” in Singapore. In Canada, the toilet is the porcelain device you sit on while eliminating body waste; it’s not the room in which such elimination takes place. In fact, in Canadian society the word “toilet” exists in that gray area of words that aren’t exactly rude, but aren’t quite proper to utter in polite company, either. I was reminded of this every summer during home leave. I’d ask a waitress or a sales person or someone else in the alleged service industry where the toilets were, and would be rewarded with a slightly scandalized look, as though I’d asked where I could find the puppy-killing rooms.)

Younger Daughter went into the first stall and immediately popped out again. She briskly checked out every stall in the row until she reached the very last one. “Finally!” she said. “I’m using the wheelchair stall.”

I came over to investigate, and found that the “wheelchair stall” wasn’t equipped for wheelchairs at all. It did, however, house the only western toilet in a long line of squats. Younger Daughter staked her claim by quickly slamming the door and sliding the bolt across with an emphatic thud.

“Hurry up!” groaned Elder Daughter, starting to do the familiar knees-crossed bounce that usually ends in urinary disaster.

“Sorrrry,” Younger Daughter sang sweetly from the safety of her fortress. “I think I’m going to be a while. You might have to use one of the floor-toilets.”

The situation was fast becoming desperate, so we peeked into the first stall for a quick assessment. It didn’t look too intimidating: it was, just like Younger Daughter said, a toilet seat fixed to the floor, with a small bucket full of water and a plastic scoop nestled beside it. Being quite close to the border, this particular neighbourhood had a substantial Malay population, and Malays prefer to clean themselves with water rather than toilet paper. The left hand is always used for this purpose, which is why it’s such a faux pas in Asia to use the left hand for eating or handing money to a cashier (something the girls got accustomed to long before I did – more scandalous looks for me!)

Even though we discovered that day that using a squat toilet wasn’t as easy as it looked, we soon became proficient. Of course, as with any new venture, there were some kinks that had to be ironed out. The toilet paper issue was easily fixed: I made sure to always have tissues in my purse. Poor aim was a bigger problem, but we got better with practice. The most puzzling question was which way to face, but if the dusty footprints on the seats of many western toilets were any guide, facing forward was a pretty safe bet.

I’d be lying if I told you I missed the squat. Mastering it was a humbling experience; not since my potty training days had the most basic human functions posed such a challenge. I always felt off-balance – figuratively, as well as literally – whenever I had to use it. But isn’t that the point of becoming an expat in the first place: to shake things up a little? Wrestling with the squat toilet was an initiation of sorts, an entrée into a world where almost everything we took for granted had to be constantly re-evaluated. Squatting, it turns out, is not just good for the thighs, but for the soul as well.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to Squatting in Singapore

  1. Judy says:

    Oh and they’re such an excellent workout for the thigh muscles too, lol! My biggest problem with squatters is figuring out how to keep my clothes dry, as inevitably the floors are always running in water (or at least I HOPE it’s just water) from all that washing. I usually end up rolling my pants up to my knees but long skirts are a nightmare. How do those Middle Eastern ladies in their abayas manage it?

    • Judy, I hear you on the thighmaster thing. Talk about multitasking! I don’t know how the ladies keep their abayas out of what Jennifer Steil, in The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, calls “poop juice,” but Younger Daughter once confided her secret to keeping dry: “You have to take your pants completely off.”

  2. Judy says:

    And then what do you do with them????? In my experience squatters never have a hook on the door. Bad enough having my purse slung round my neck, but my pants and underwear as well??? 😀

    • Maria says:

      Well, she used to come out of the stall with her pants still around her neck. Of course, she was only 6 at the time. I’m not saying it works for everyone…

  3. bookjunkie says:

    eew…i am a local but I wish they would do away with the squat…these days locals don’t use it and it’s a waste of a stall. Hope I don’t get scolded for this comment by a local who actually likes using the traditional type of loo.

    To be honest…i never use it, so I think you’re being kind in your description.

  4. Maria says:

    Interesting! I didn’t see too many of them in Singapore; we came across so many more in China. I tried very hard not to judge when things were different (although I admit I wasn’t always successful), so I’m glad I’m coming across as kind!

  5. Dave Collier says:

    In India I would always seek out the squat toilets rather than the western kind. In the latter you’re never quite sure what you might be sitting on.
    Admittedly in the squat kind you need to keep your clothes off the floor, but it can be done with a bit of practice, you just have to make sure your money doesn’t fall out of your pocket in the process.

  6. Fortunately I’ve had lots of practice with squat toilets around the world. I remember once seeing a “regular” western toilet with footprints on the seat. I don’t remember where it was, but I visualize a lady, possibly of generous girth, wearing long skirts, balancing herself on top. Poor thing. Must have been terrified!

    • Maria says:

      The first time I saw footprints on a western-style toilet seat in Asia, I automatically looked at the ceiling to see what the person had been up to. It took me quite some time to make a connection between those dusty footprints and the squat toilet.

  7. Crystal says:

    I think it may mark me as a bad expat that I’ve lived in Singapore a year and have yet to find myself in a situation where using a squatty potty is anything other than optional. And I’m far to chickenshit to try it out for kicks.

    • Maria says:

      LOL! It’s not something I’d seek out, that’s for sure! But it doesn’t make us bad expats — even bookjunkie, a native Singaporean, doesn’t like the squats.

    • K says:

      I don’t think I ever had to use a squat toilet when I went to Singapore six years ago, but there was one instance where I, along with quite a lot of other tourists, queued up for a while even though the two squat toilets were free. (There were 4 or so sitting toilets, but we all know what women’s toilet queues are like!)

      My first experience using a squat toilet was when I went to China earlier this year. Most places in Beijing have sitting toilets, but we did go to one restaurant that only had squat toilets. After using one, and seeing a couple of really dirty sitting toilets (some Chinese people think that sitting toilets are dirty so they lift up the lid and squat on the rim of the bowl) I found that I began to prefer squat toilets. (I had a bit of “reverse culture shock” when I returned home and was forced to use sitting toilets…) My main piece of advice would be to turn out your feet more when you squat, personally I’ve found that it makes it easier to balance.

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