Catching up with Johnson Ong - the DJ challenging Singapore's colonial-era gay sex ban law

Johnson Ong is an unlikely activist. And yet —like many who find themselves in such situations — he finds himself in the center of a legal battle in his home country of Singapore because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

On September 10th, Ong and his lawyer, Eugene Thuraisingam, filed a case against the Singapore government to overturn Section 377A of the penal code, a remnant of the colonial-era that bans gay sex. The law states that acts of “gross indecency” between men are punishable with a jail term of up to two years. They found the motivation to do so after India’s Supreme Court struck down the same law just weeks earlier.

Ong is a 43-year-old professional DJ with a law background. He resided in Los Angeles for seven years, where he became accustomed to living openly as a gay man. He travels around the world constantly, playing huge LGBTQ events for crowds of thousands and regularly produces his own music under the moniker DJ Big Kid.

The first challenge to the archaic law was filed in Singapore in 2014 but failed. And since Ong first filed his suit, the movement has been picking up momentum. A petition mounted by the local LGBTQ advocacy group PinkDot to repeal the law currently has 46,500 signatures. But debate remains amongst Singaporeans over whether or not the country’s culture is ready for the cultural shift in attitudes towards its LGBTQ citizens. Despite the fortuitous timing in India, Ong filed his lawsuit because he felt it was his civic duty.

“I don’t think there’s an opportune time,” he explained. “Any time is a good time for human rights.”

Last Tuesday, a Pre Trial Conference (PTC) took place, which gave Ong and Thuraisingam two months to submit all of their evidence and affidavits to the court (by Nov. 20th). The next Pre Trial Conference will take place on December 3rd.

GLAAD caught up with Ong to talk with him about his journey and the sacrifices he’s making in order to try to change the culture of his home country.

GLAAD: HOW DID YOU END UP DECIDING YOU WANTED TO BE THE PERSON WHO WOULD CHALLENGE SECTION 377A THIS TIME AROUND? WAS IT YOUR IDEA? OR WERE YOU APPROACHED BY OTHERS?

ONG: My lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam and I have known each other since we were kids, as we were in the same grade in (the equivalent of) Grade school. We went to the same high school and eventually went to the same law school in Singapore. We kept in touch on and off all these years, and he approached me to be the applicant in the suit. I don't think I would have proceeded with the suit, if we didn't have that friendship and mutual respect and if I didn't think he was one of the best litigation lawyers in the business to handle such a high profile case like this one.

WHY DO YOU THINK NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME TO FINALLY TAKE THIS LAW OFF THE BOOKS? WHAT IS IT ABOUT SINGAPORE SOCIETY WHICH HAS PREVENTED IT FROM HAPPENING UP UNTIL NOW?

The recent India ruling and Professor Tommy Koh’s challenge for the LGBTQ community to bring a class action suit energized me. It’s time for a change; there’s no better or worse time for equality. The LGBTQ community in Singapore has suffered enough discrimination and abuse as a result of an unjust and archaic colonial law that has absolutely no place in Singapore in 2018.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DO YOU FEEL A REPEAL WOULD MAKE IN THE LIVES OF LGBTQ FOLKS IN SINGAPORE?

With S377A still on the books, LGBTQ groups are not allowed to organize. We don’t see ourselves represented on mainstream media, and when we do, we are almost always portrayed in a negative light. Additionally, without access to help and resources, growing up is a lonely and arduous process for LGBTQ Singaporeans. Hopefully, with a repeal, all of that will change!

WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES SO FAR FOR YOU PERSONALLY, SINCE ANNOUNCING YOUR INTENT TO OVERTURN THIS LAW?

Before the news broke I was warned by some friends that I was going to get a lot of pushback from those who opposed the repeal. However, the support I have received has been nothing short of overwhelming. I have received many encouraging and affirming messages through my social channels and texts from friends and strangers alike, which is deeply moving on a personal level. I have nothing but gratitude to all these individuals and it is such support and love that will spur me on to see this challenge right to the end. I also realized since that this issue is bigger than any one person or any one campaign. It is a Singaporean issue and is heartening to know that many Singaporeans are now "woke" to the larger issue of equality and justice and fairness.

YOU’RE A DJ AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC PRODUCER WHO PLAYS AT HUGE LGBTQ EVENTS ALL AROUND THE WORLD. HAVE THOSE EXPERIENCES INFLUENCED YOUR SENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE AND DESIRE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Definitely. I also lived in Los Angeles for a total of about 7 years, so I have experienced how it feels to live unencumbered by an anti-LGBTQ law hanging over my head. LGBTQ Americans are free to be who they are and no one bats an eyelid in LA when they find out who you are. It is a total non-issue. Traveling to different parts of the world also showed me that no matter where you come from or what your reality is, everyone wants to be treated with basic human dignity and respect. That is a universal truth and it is important to be able to stand up and be counted whenever that fundamental right is threatened.

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