Jessica Goodfellow
Jun 29, 2021

A Singapore perspective: Life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the ad industry

In the fifth iteration of our LGBTQIA+ interview series, a Singaporean agency leader discusses why he doesn’t have an issue with virtue signalling, and how his activism work has influenced the way he runs his business—as he hopes to build a more welcoming society for future generations.

Johnson Ong is the co-founder of creative digital agency BZNZ (Credit: Mave L. Hsiun)
Johnson Ong is the co-founder of creative digital agency BZNZ (Credit: Mave L. Hsiun)

Johnson Ong is a rarity both for his multifaceted skills, as an agency co-founder, a music producer and DJ, and his activism work in Singapore.

Ong is the co-founder and director of operations of BZNZ Singapore, a creative digital agency specialising in social-media marketing that has offices in Singapore and Manila. He leads all client accounts, including major brands like Singtel VIA, Lexus Singapore, Toyota Borneo Motors Singapore, Studio M Hotel, and oversees the daily operations of the consultancy in Singapore. Prior to co-founding BZNZ, Ong held senior marketing roles at companies such as Be Inclusive, Big Kid Productions & Communications and Proyder. He was also the founder and lead director of client accounts at social-media consultancy Schmuzter. His stage name is DJ Big Kid.

Previously in this series

A Vietnam perspective: Culture and working life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the industry
A strategist speaks of his experience in Vietnam where discrimination and stigma against the community is still common—despite recent policy progress—leading many to continue to hide their identities.

A Malaysia perspective: Culture and working life as an LGBTQIA+ person in the industry
In this iteration of our interview series, we turn our attention to Malaysia, where one individual—despite living under repressive laws—has found acceptance and is optimistic about the future of the country's community.

A Japan perspective: Culture and working life as a LGBTQIA+ person in the industry
A Japan-based executive discusses his experience coming out to his coworkers, and aspects of religion and culture that disenfranchise the community.

What's it like working in the industry as an LGBTQIA+ person?
The first in the series, two Thailand-based openly-LGBTQIA+ individuals imagine a future where there is no longer a need to close diversity gaps. But more focus is needed on gender and sexual identity to get there.

Ong identifies as a out and proud gay man, and has become a prominent activist for LGBTQIA+ rights and equality in Singapore. He has mounted an ongoing court challenge to Section 377A of the Penal Code in Singapore, which criminalises sex between men.

Ong is also ambassador of Singapore’s annual Pink Dot rally event. Pink Dot, held during global Pride month, has been running as an outdoor rally at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park since 2009, and for the past two years as a virtual event. It was previously supported by multinational corporations including Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and more. But in 2016, new rules were brought in by the government preventing international businesses from sponsoring the event. Ever since, the organisers have been appealing to local companies for sponsorship support, and Ong says he has been “heartened” by how local businesses have “stepped up”.

This interview forms part of an ongoing series focused on the experiences of individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community from different markets in Asia-Pacific. Catch our previous interviews (above) with people in Malaysia, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. We hope by focusing on a different market each time that the series will, over time, paint a picture of what it is like to live and work as an LGBTQIA+ individual in Asia-Pacific. Because LGBTQIA+ rights in some Asia-Pacific markets are still informed by deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, we expect the responses to be quite different. If you or someone you know would be happy to share their perspective, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

CampaignWhat is your experience as an LGBTQIA+ person in the creative industry?

Being in the creative field, being different or queer is actually an asset. And most clients, if they're smart, they will see it that way. You get different viewpoints, fresh ideas, ideas that are outside of the box. Most of the time, it's an asset, it's not a liability. There was once one instance where a potential client had asked me if I was the one that was bringing a suit against the Singapore government. That person ghosted me after that. I think that was more to do with fear of anti-establishment, rather than that I was gay.

I have had some clients say, 'hey, I want to tap into the gay market'. That is a red flag for me. Because, while I appreciate that they are gay-friendly, I don't want them to just be after the pink dollar without fully understanding what the community is about and their struggles. So I've had to either ignore it till I felt that they were really sincere about it, or say no.

Having said that, a lot of the local brands these days, especially this month, have stepped forward. They're coming out and saying they support the LGBTQIA+ community, they're coming in as sponsors for Pink Dot. A lot of it may just be virtue-signalling, and I know there's a lot of criticism surrounding that. But to me, that's a good first step. You have to start somewhere, right?

Of course, the next step would be how we can draw them in further so they can meaningfully support the community beyond putting up a rainbow flag on social media. I think that's where us as the community have to provide those opportunities for them.

Do you believe the creative advertising industry to be more or less inclusive than other sectors?

Definitely more inclusive than banking or finance industries, because I know friends in finance that are still not really out in the workplace. They feel like maybe they might be disadvantaged if they came out. I'm sure the creative industry is a lot more accepting.

What sparked your activism work?

I was involved in the original campaign when the Section 377A law was up for repeal back in 2007. Unfortunately, they repealed the law for heterosexual couples, but they kept they kept the anti-sodomy law for the gays. It wasn't a surprise that they kept the law for gay men, but it was a disappointment. It all started there. Because I was in PR then, I was asked to draft the press releases, set up interviews with media. It blew up like crazy, even back then. So that was my first taste of being an activist. And then when I suddenly became a famous DJ, that gave me the platform. And then Pink Dot asked me to be an ambassador. I never really decided one day that I wanted to be an activist, it's just, somehow these opportunities come along. And when it's a worthwhile cause that I also feel strongly about, I wouldn't say no.

How has your activism work influenced the way that you run your business?

My company is 100% gay-owned. My Filipino partner in Manila is also gay. How it's impacted me in the way I relate to my team members is that I try to shut up more and listen a lot more, ask more questions, try to be more empathetic and appreciate their lived experience, which is a lot different from mine.

People have not always tried to appreciate my lived experience of what I go through as a gay person. They always see from the lens of the straight heteronormative world that they live in—my parents, my family, it's very hard for them to imagine my experience. Now it's flipped the other way, where I have team members who rely on me to give them direction, and I have to now listen to their experiences.

Previously in this series, an individual shared that he felt like he was part of a community in Singapore, more so than in Vietnam. How would you describe the experience of the LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore?

I think it's a reaction to 377A that we've had to galvanise ourselves to really seek out our own communities and build our own communities. The law has a real impact on the LGBTQIA+ community here, because we can't officially organise, we can't educate kids about homosexual relationships, and it also impacts our media—the portrayals of gay people or queer people in the media are always negative.

I don’t think the broader population has any problem with people who are queer, or the LGBTQIA+ community in general. There's a sense of 'live and let live mentality'. I don't interfere in your private life, you don't interfere in mine.

[However] we certainly feel sometimes like we are second-class citizens, because if you are male and gay, you are technically a criminal. And no one wants to feel that. I don't want to feel like I'm wrong or I've done something wrong, just for being who I am. Even though it is not enforced, these signals hang over your head, and it does a number on your psyche. You go through life thinking, 'I'm wrong, something's wrong with me'. It does play on your mental health. Now that I am slightly older, I've had the chance to deal with all of it...This challenge [to 377A] is more for the generations that are going to come after me. I don't want them to grow up feeling lousy about themselves.

How would you say your experience living in Los Angeles compares?

When you grow up without any gay rights, you kind of don't miss it, because you don't know it. But when I went to LA, I realised, no one gives a rat's ass what you are. [For the first time] I would see billboards targeting the LGBTQIA+ community. I did get that sense of freedom, and definitely a different perspective of what life should be and how I should feel about myself. I liked that no one was judging me, that I could express myself freely, I could hold my same-sex date's hand and walk down Santa Monica Boulevard and no one stared.

When it comes to LGBTQIA+ acceptance more broadly, what progress have you seen being made (for example, more representation in media), and where is there still progress to be made?

Naumi hotel recently featured a real life gay couple in their ad. That was quite surprising, because it's one thing to say that you affirm the LGBTQIA+ community, it's another to have a gay campaign that demonstrates that. Brands are starting to dip their toes in that area, targeting the LGBTQIA+ community through a campaign rather than just a social post. Hopefully that we see a lot more of that. Since the Naumi campaign received good feedback and little blowback, maybe it will encourage other brands to go in that direction.

What advice would you give businesses looking to create more inclusive environments for people across the LGBTQIA+ community?

I don't have issue with virtue signalling. But I think companies, if you have the resources, should set up LGBTQIA+ chapters so that your employees feel that they are included, and you'll be able to get feedback and hear about their needs and concerns. The LGBTQIA+ community is so varied, you're kind of stepping into a minefield, because you don't know what is right to say, what is wrong to say. Now with intersectionality it gets even more confusing. So I think it's important for a company to  approach, for example, a trans organisation and say, 'Hey, can you teach us about pronouns?'. Educate yourself. You're going to get it wrong sometimes. And I think we need to not cancel people and brands so easily, but give them a chance to learn and grow. As long as you're putting in the effort.

Do corporations play a significant role in improving LGBTQIA+ equality in your market and in workplaces?

Brands and businesses have a lot of power, if they push hard enough. Currently, if I was a big global brand that had a lot of queer employees, why would I send them to a country that where they can potentially be imprisoned for being who they are? Businesses have a lot of sway. They can say, 'I need you to do this for me, then I will come in and set up an office here'.

We understand LGBTQIA+ individuals may have different experiences to those described above. We would love to hear from you, wherever you are based. We understand the sensitivities of talking about being LGBTQIA+ in certain markets, so we are happy to run anonymous commentary. Please reach out to the editorial team or share feedback on the website.

Check out our other LGBTQIA+ coverage:

Pride month: How to gain the respect of the rainbow community
In the third of our series exploring how brands can mark Pride, FCB Auckland's Melina Fiolitakis discusses how to devise a meaningful marketing strategy that is equal parts celebratory and respectful of the community's struggle.

The ingredients of a perfect Pride campaign

In the second edition of our series exploring how to celebrate Pride authentically and with compassion, Initiative Australia's Olivia Warren shares a personal account of her work on LGBTQIA+ campaigns—and which brand she will never buy from again.

Pride month: How can brands avoid pinkwashing?
To mark the beginning of Pride month, Hesperus Mak, the head of strategic planning at TBWA Group Vietnam, shares his tips on how brands should approach the LGBT event.

How to create an LGBTQIA+ friendly workforce
A Facebook executive who co-chairs an internal Pride group shares her tips to creating an inclusive environment for the LGBTQIA+ community.

 

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