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Johnson Ong, Co-founder and Director of operations at BZNZ Creative Agency


Johnson Ong (born 1981) is a Singaporean LGBTQ activist and openly gay marketeer. Ong is the co-founder and director of operations at BZNZ, a creative and digital marketing agency with offices in Singapore and Manila. Ong, also a prominent international DJ known as DJ Big Kid, has played at dance parties in major cities around the world. A passionate LGBTQ+ rights activist, Ong mounted a challenge against Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, which criminalises sex between mutually consenting males.

Contents

Childhood[]

Even as a child, Ong was always keenly aware of the fact that he was different from most other boys. While he did not quite know back then that the differences that he felt might have something to do with his sexuality, it still did not make his childhood years any easier.

His childhood best friend was a female tomboy and he felt a connection with her because he thought they both felt a little different from the other kids, even though sexuality was not something they thought about at that age.

When Ong did eventually experience same-sex attraction, however, it was not something that he was able to reconcile with easily. Ong grew up in an environment where alternative sexualities were rarely discussed and where being gay was considered to be immoral and wrong.

He recalls that having people close to him telling him being “ah kwa”(gay) was wrong and forbidden by God caused him to grow up with a lot of guilt and isolation because of an intense fear that being found out would risk rejection and disappointment from the people closest to him. So while he could not quite pinpoint the exact age or moment when he knew for certain that he was gay, his homosexuality was always something that he felt the need to hide and suppress. And a lot of that had to do with his family.

Born to a typically conservative Asian family, he feels that having a gay son would be something too unfathomable for his parents. In a society that prides itself on appearances, Ong felt like he had to keep up appearances to not disappoint his parents. So, throughout his secondary school and junior college years, he tried dating girls in order to portray himself as best he could, as a typical skirt-chasing heterosexual male. More often than not, however, his attempts at trying to be straight culminated in disastrous situations instead.

Career[]

Ong pursued an education in law and graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.), Honors. After graduation, Ong worked as a PR consultant for a few years before deciding to pursue his passion for music production and working as a DJ in 2008.

Music production has always been his greatest passion. He started his DJ-ing journey as a bedroom DJ first, before getting his big breaks in China; namely Beijing (Club Destination) and Shanghai (D2).

Not many people know this, but he also went to music school in Los Angeles, so music and music production was always a part of his life.

Ong went on to establish himself as DJ Big Kid, whose signature tribal progressive sound has won him legions of fans from all over the world. He has spun to eager party-goers from cities like Taipei and Bangkok to places like Sydney and Zurich. In addition, DJ Big Kid is also a #1 U.S. Billboard dance remixer and official remixes for superstars like Enrique Iglesias and Olivia Newton-John. Many of his official remixes have peaked in the Top 10 of the U.S. Billboard Dance chart!

Ong is also one of the few Asian DJs who have managed to successfully cross over to the American circuit party scene. He feels that circuit parties are pretty much the gay version of a rave and it is not an easy scene to break into professionally. Ong, however, has defied the odds to become a prominent name in the international circuit party scene, spinning at circuit parties all over the world from the Gay Massive 1Life Music Festival in California to the Mighty Asia Party in Bangkok.

Upon his return to Singapore, Ong returned to the marketing workforce as a digital marketing professional. Currently, Ong is the director and co-founder of BZNZ Singapore, a creative digital agency specialising in social media marketing with offices in Singapore and Manila. Johnson leads all client accounts, including major brands like Singtel VIA, Lexus Singapore, Toyota Borneo Motors Singapore and Studio M Hotel. Ong oversees the daily operations of the consultancy in Singapore. He has more than 15 years of experience as a marketer. During the pandemic, Ong was not able to DJ for live audiences but he continues his passion by producing music at home and releasing his remixes online.

Ong has previously held directorship at several companies such as Be Inclusive Pte Ltd, Big Kid Productions and Communications, and Proyder Pte Ltd. He was also the founder and lead director of client accounts at Schmuzter, a social media consultancy.

Gay circuit party scene[]

Ong loves the gay circuit party scene in Asia. It is where he has met many of his friends today who he knows will be friends for life.

He thinks circuit parties in Asia serve a function to bring the gay community together where they can just be themselves and be with their friends because sometimes, living in a straight-oriented world can be overwhelming.

Contrary to popular belief, Ong insists that he is quite the homebody despite his outgoing personality and career choice. Ong prefers spending quality time with his family and friends in quieter settings as opposed to a wild night out at the clubs.

Pink Dot 2010 ambassador[]

Ong is also passionate about helping out the local LGBT community in whatever way he can. He was the Pink Dot ambassador for Pink Dot 2010 and again for the 10th Anniversary of Pink Dot in 2018. He has attended the Pink Dot event itself on numerous occasions as well.

Coming out[]

Coming out of the closet for Ong was not easy. Before his consenting to be a Pink Dot 2010 ambassador, he was closeted to his family. “I grew up in an environment where I was told being gay is wrong; that I needed to cast out the demons,” he said.

“Parents have a certain expectation of their children,” he noted. “Because of these expectations, you feel that there’s a need to keep up the charade. If you don’t, then you’d fall short and disappoint everyone.” As a country, we think of ‘family’ as being core to our values, yet the idea of having an LGBT family member would be unfathomable for most Singaporean families. Hence, we dodge, pretend and avoid, so as to maintain harmony, Ong said.

“I think, a lot of times, this issue drives a wedge between sons and daughters, with their parents. There’s that ‘need’ to hide who you are, that ‘need’ to keep up with appearances, and because of this, you cannot reveal your true self to the people that you love – your parents, extended family members, friends, old classmates… It keeps everyone in the family from having a truly close relationship.”

He recounts the story of a friend, J, who fell ill and had to be hospitalised. J is gay and was, at the time, not out to his family. J’s partner had alerted J’s family about the situation, and he would, subsequently, continue to provide regular updates to J’s mother about the condition of J’s health. How J’s family had managed the situation stuck with Ong because it exemplified what he perceived to be a particularly “Asian” approach of tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. Everyone in the family knew what was going on between J and his partner but no one would talk about it. Ong said, “it didn’t matter to the mother what relationship J had with his partner. What mattered to her was that this guy cares deeply about her son, which was something that she could recognise quite clearly. Next thing you know, when she’s making chicken soup for J, she prepares an extra portion for J’s partner.”

For Ong, the story reflects how most Singapore families might manage and accept the presence of an LGBT member: “quiet acknowledgement”. However, he believes that family relationships will be stronger when family members communicate more openly – “So that they can be the ones you turn to,” he said. For that reason, Ong said ‘yes’ to being a Pink Dot 2010 ambassador. “Pink Dot was a fantastic effort...and it’s a simple thing that we can do once a year to say that LGBT people are a part of the Singapore family.”

Describing his first coming out experience, he recollects: "It was in the car with my mum that she first asked me if I was gay. She had seen an interview I did for Pink Dot and figured it out. I asked her if she was sad, she responded that there are so many people who are gay in this world, so it wasn’t something to be sad about. It is just what it is. And that was that." Subsequently, his family gave him his own space and respected his decisions. At the end of the day, his family just wanted him to be happy. He encourages closeted gay people to come out, saying that it is not that scary and advises them to live the only life they know to be true.

Section 377A constitutional challenge[]

Johnson Ong Corporate Shot 2.jpg


On Monday, 10 September 2018, barely 4 days after the historic striking down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Ong, then 43 years of age, filed a challenge with the High Court against Section 377A, arguing that the law was unconstitutional[1],[2]. Ong was represented by lawyers Eugene Thuraisingam and Suang Wijaya who acted pro bono. The Attorney-General was listed as the defendant and a pre-trial conference was fixed for 25 September 2018.

In his filing, Ong, who was in a relationship with a male partner for more than a year, said he was aware of the ruling in October 2014 that rejected the constitutional challenge filed by Tan Eng Hong and gay couple Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee but argued the court should depart from that precedent given international judicial developments since then, including the recent Indian Supreme Court judgment. He was also relying on a 2015 report by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)which argued that "sexual orientation is unchangeable or suppressible at unacceptable personal cost". Ong also pointed out that Section 377A targeted only gay men and not gay women, and therefore contravened the right to equality enshrined in Article 12 of the Constitution.

Ong's lawyers, Suang Wijaya & Eugene Thuraisingam


On Wednesday, 12 September 2018, Ong responded to queries from the TODAY newspaper via email, saying that he believed repealing the section would put an end to the "online assaults, vitriol and abuse" against the LGBTQ community[3],[4]. He felt “energised” by the news of India’s ruling and decided to “take up” Prof Koh’s challenge. Ong's lawyers intended to adduce expert evidence which included proof that same-gender sexual orientation (including identity, behaviour, and attraction) and variations in gender identity and gender expression were “a part of the normal spectrum of human diversity and do not constitute a mental disorder”. If established that sexual orientation was unchangeable or not suppressible, they would argue that the criminalisation of consensual sex was a violation of human dignity and breached Article 9(1) of the Constitution, which stated: “No one shall be deprived of life and personal liberty save in accordance with law”. However, the court previously held that Section 377A did not contradict Article 9 as the phrase “life and liberty” was only to be used in reference to the protection of the personal liberty of a person from unlawful incarceration and not to the right of privacy and autonomy in personal relationships. The lawyers additionally planned to argue that there had been many changes and legal developments around the world since the previous challenge was struck out, citing cases in the United States, Belize, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India[5],[6].

Ong[7],[8] also chose to mount the court challenge as LGBTQ groups were "not allowed to organise" and "don't see ourselves represented positively on mainstream media, if at all[9],[10]. "Without access to help and resources, navigating through life is a lonely and often stressful process for every LGBT Singaporean," he said. "Most importantly, I am not a criminal and I do not want to go through life being branded as one by my own country. It takes a psychological toll on you going through life thinking you are less than everyone else."[11]

Ong added: “I feel the current sentiment is that we have for decades silently suffered through enough discrimination at our workplaces, in our communities and within our own families, and not so recently, by conservatives, and religious organisations.” While he expected a “public backlash even to my own personal detriment” following his move, he reiterated that he was unperturbed and “ready for it”. He was “hopeful” and felt that he stood a good chance this time around. He added that a successful court challenge would be "a monumental moment for not just the LGBTQ community but for all Singaporeans because gay rights, like women’s rights, like any subjugated minority rights, are human rights"[12],[13].

See also[]

References[]

  • DJ Big Kid, Pink Dot[14].
  • Sean Foo, "Out Of The Closet: Johnson Ong aka DJ Big Kid Shares His Story", Dear Straight People, 15 February 2016[15].
  • Selina Lum, "Singapore DJ files fresh court challenge against Section 377A, arguing it is unconstitutional", The Straits Times, 12 September 2018[16].
  • Jeremy Blacklow, "Catching up with Johnson Ong - the DJ challenging Singapore's colonial-era gay sex ban law", GLAAD, 2 October 2018[17].
  • Ikea and LGBT+ activist marketer on how brands can avoid virtue signalling this Pride, https://www.thedrum.com/news/2021/06/29/working-with-lgbt-talent-gay-marketer-and-ikea-explain-why-it-important
  • A Singapore perspective: Life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the ad industry, https://www.campaignasia.com/article/a-singapore-perspective-life-as-an-lgbtqia-person-in-the-ad-industry/470688

Acknowledgements[]

This article was written by Roy Tan.

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