Blend of opposites

Besides working together as radio DJs, Glenn Ong (far left) and Mark Van Cuylenburg have also hosted television shows.
Besides working together as radio DJs, Glenn Ong (left) and Mark Van Cuylenburg have also hosted television shows.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Ong and Van Cuylenburg hint, as they have done in other interviews, that the slowly tightening control over their on-air personas is among the reasons they left their previous employer.

They lament the loss of "radio personalities", most of them forged in the Golden Age of the 1990s, when English-language stations proliferated and hosts tried to outdo one another in outrageousness.

These days, young talents are trained to be "radio presenters", anonymous and bled dry of individuality.

It is done so that the hosts do not attract the censure of the authorities - which both Van Cuylenburg and Ong have done - but also so the station's brand gains listener loyalty, not the presenter, so that if the presenter walks, listeners will not be pulled along.

Says Ong: "We came in at a time when we were allowed to express ourselves freely."

And that he did: When he hosted the late-night show The Ego Trip in the mid-1990s, he became known for speaking in the voices of pungent characters such as Short Fart, God Pa and Honky, with a speciality in insulting anyone he thought was stupid - callers and listeners included - and sex jokes.

The public was reminded of Ong's penchant for shooting from the hip earlier this year when he became embroiled in a Twitter war over his panning of the local television sci-fi docudrama 2025, which drew an angry response from show producer Nicholas Lee.

Like Ong, Van Cuylenburg now finds himself in the interesting position of competing with his former morning slot on Class 95 FM.

His current gig comes after a varied career, hosting television shows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, from 2001, and 2007's dance competition show Dance Floor, with Ong and Jade Seah, among others).

While his views might skew to the patriotic and pro-family compared with Ong's, Van Cuylenburg's bag of tricks includes barbs and funny voices - he used to do traffic reports with Indian and Japanese accents.

In the 1980s, emceeing live events led to a deejaying job at former cable radio broadcaster Rediffusion, which opened a morning show slot at Class 95 with co-host Joe Augustin from the mid-1990s, at the urging of Mr Bernard Lim, 45, a deejay who rose to become general manager and vice-president at MediaCorp.

When reached for a comment about the pairing of Ong and Van Cuylenburg at ONE FM 91.3, Mr Lim, now head of family segment and customer group at the broadcaster, says: "I'm glad to hear Glenn and Van Cuylenburg are enjoying their new gig. I wish them all the best."

Mr Mark De Silva, 45, father of a seven-year-old son and a senior IT architect with the National University of Singapore (NUS), has been tuning in to the duo since they first worked together at Class 95 FM, after having come from Ong's Ego Trip late-night show. He has since become a friend of Ong's after attending radio workshops conducted by the deejay.

Ong and Van Cuylenburg are a good match, he thinks, because the older man's sunniness deflects and directs the younger man's irascibility into a format that feels more structured.

When Ong is paired with "loose cannons", such as Ong's former co-hosts Rod Monteiro and Augustin, things tended to get out of hand, he says.

"When Glenn is alone, he says out loud what's on his mind, he hits out. When he's with Van Cuylenburg, it feels like it's more a comedy routine," says Mr De Silva, who listens to the show during an hour-plus morning car commute from his home in Pasir Ris to NUS in the west, with a stop in between to drop his son off at school in Bedok.

Van Cuylenburg seems to agree.

"I am a father-figure kind of person," he tells Life.

And in a reply that could have come from their morning show, Ong cuts in. "Yes - self-righteous, pompous," he says in a relaxed drawl.

Van Cuylenburg returns with the kicker, summing up their chemistry. "Now, you see how that works?"

A voice of the people


Glenn Ong (left, with his mum Patricia Ong, dad Frank Ong and brother Gary Ong).   PHOTO: COURTESY OF GLENN ONG

Mark Van Cuylenburg, also known as The Flying Dutchman, points out that Glenn Ong has been called a voice of the people, but wants to go one step further.

"Glenn says things people want to say, but don't. Because of fear, conservatism. They are thinking it, but don't say it. Glenn says it," says Van Cuylenburg, father of four daughters.

Ong's lack of restraint when dealing with racy or touchy topics has landed him in trouble.

In 2001, he and co-host Rod Monteiro were suspended for two weeks after complaints about the explicit sexual content on their Perfect 10 morning show Five Guys And A Girl.

While Ong's edgy bro-speak has audience appeal, Van Cuylenburg adds that the younger man's unpredictability, which can manifest itself as combativeness on air, fascinates some listeners.

"Glenn makes me think of that old saying: 'People are suckers for punishment'," he says.

Not everyone likes him necessarily. But they will always listen to him with one thought - what the hell is he going to do today?

MARK VAN CUYLENBURG on his co-host Glenn Ong

"Not everyone likes him necessarily. But they will always listen to him with one thought - what the hell is he going to do today?"

Speaking to Life a few weeks into their new gig at ONE FM 91.3, Ong says he is still adjusting and has not unleashed that side of him yet - the "b*****d" side, as he puts it, the one that earned him a folder of hate mail in MediaCorp from those who find his sharp tongue and his life choices, especially his marriages to, and divorces from fellow DJs Jamie Yeo and the late Kate Reyes, worthy of rebuke. He is now engaged to Class 95FM DJ and television host Jean Danker.

Far from dreading the return of Bad Glenn, Van Cuylenburg hopes it will not take too long for his co-host to feel relaxed enough to cut loose.

"You can't buy that with money. That's just who he is. I would be disappointed if he didn't let it show," he says.

Real and personable


Mark Van Cuylenburg (above, with his wife Michelle in Brazil).      PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARK VAN CUYLENBURG

Mark Van Cuylenburg says he is "ridiculously patriotic" when it comes to defending Singapore. Ong adds: "To the point of being irritating."

When the older man is "going on about something and being preachy", Ong says his role is to infer what the listeners are thinking and to stick a needle in his co-host's balloon.

"I'll say, 'Stop being preachy and everyone will go, 'Thank you, Glenn'," he says.

What they have is not quite insult comedy, nor is it a simple case of cross talk, in which Van Cuylenburg's straight man plays against Ong's funny man.

In keeping with their aversion to scripted radio, there is no role- playing for its own sake, they say. Either can play devil's advocate or take the establishment position; or be the punchline.

Ong appreciates that Van Cuylenburg is genuinely who he is off air and on and vice versa.

He is real. A lot of presenters don't want to share their personal lives. But the ones that do are automatically more interesting.

GLENN ONG on his co-host Mark Van Cuylenburg

Other than the odd telephone chat, they do not hang out after work.

There is an aspect of personal confession on-air that keeps them grounded in each other's lives, with the bonus that the audience responds to it.

"He is real. A lot of presenters don't want to share their personal lives. But the ones that do are automatically more interesting," says Ong.

As an example, Van Cuylenburg says he might mention on air he had a fight with wife Michelle and is "in the doghouse".

The one constant about his co-host, says Ong, is that "he is never in a bad mood".

There was a time when Ong, "after a night of drinking", would show up in the studio in no mood to talk, counting on Van Cuylenburg to take on more than his share of speaking.

They frequently clash on air over issues, but that is all left behind at the end of the show, says Ong.

"In the 10 years we've worked together, we've never had an argument or got on each others' nerves. It's amazing, this chemistry we have," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'Blend of opposites'. Subscribe