Making it big in the Philippines

She is a Malay Singaporean but she can effortlessly belt out Filipino hits like a native speaker of Tagalog.

Fathin Amira Zubir's talent has won over legions of Filipino fans from around the world, thanks to her recent stint on the reality singing competition I Love OPM, where she was in the semifinals as one of the top eight contestants.

It was the inaugural season of the TV show, which has foreigners from countries such as Nigeria, Russia, Korea and the US competing in singing original Pinoy music (OPM).

Korean Yohan Hwang was eventually crowned the winner - based on voting by judges and the public - in the final which aired on the Philippines' biggest TV network ABS-CBN on April 23.

Fathin, a serial reality TV contestant who took part in Singapore Idol 3 (2009), The Final 1 (2013), SG Mania (2014) and Asia's Got Talent (2015), was competing overseas for the first time.

Judge and TV host-singer Toni Gonzaga-Soriano praised her in the March 6 episode, saying she "shook" them to their "core" with her rendition of love song Paano (What Now).

Fathin was told that if the judges closed their eyes, they would not have been able to tell that she was not a native Tagalog speaker.

Which is why she could not help but feel disappointed that she failed to make it to the finals.

But she hopes to use the I Love OPM experience as a launchpad into the Pinoy music industry.

The 24-year-old told The New Paper: "It has always been my dream to sing in the Philippines. Of course I expected to go to the next round, I thought that I could do it... I wanted to win so badly. But thanks to this competition, I learnt a lot about the industry."

Fathin, the eldest of traditional Malay music composer Zubir Abdullah's three children, said she is working on her own OPM song called Unang Pag-ibig, working closely with Filipino music arranger Noel Espenida.

Her song was translated from one of her dad's songs, Cinta Pertama.

She said: "I hope to fly to the Philippines again and make new connections. It is my ultimate dream to be a recording artist there."

Fathin was approached to join I Love OPM when ABS-CBN left a comment on a video of her cover of Filipino song Ikaw Lamang.

She is no stranger to singing in Tagalog, having started during her Singapore Idol 3 days, when contestants were required to perform songs in Asian languages apart from English during the Asian Week episode.

Back then, she sang the ballad Bakit Pa (Why Bother). She then started doing covers of Filipino songs such as Bumabalik Ang Nagdaan and Lumayo Ka Man Sa Akin on YouTube after her stint on Asia's Got Talent.


That was when her Filipino fan base grew, expanding even more after she joined I Love OPM. Now Fathin has more than 21,900 followers on her official Facebook page, including Filipino fans from as far as the US and the Middle East.

They have praised her for her "amazing voice and talent", some even saying she was deserving of I Love OPM's top spot.

For Fathin, singing in Tagalog comes easily because it is phonetically similar to Malay.

"Even the melody of the songs reminds me of Malay songs. The two languages are very alike in many ways," she said.

She's slowly learning to speak the language as well. She knows some words and short phrases, can understand when she is spoken to and hopes to master it in the future.

She seeks career inspiration from Malaysian singer Shila Amzah, who has successfully penetrated the Chinese market after winning the 2012 Chinese reality singing talent show Asian Wave.

"I always tell myself, if she can do it, why can't I? She has her fair share of struggles and sacrifices but I'm happy to see a Muslim pursuing music and making a mark outside of her home country."


During I Love OPM's filming between February and April, Fathin Amira Zubir travelled thrice to Manila accompanied by a family member, spending a week or two there each time.

Not only did she undergo challenges in a new environment, she had to be extremely careful about her health.

Late last year, she underwent an operation to remove her uterus after she experienced severe pain in her abdomen that made it difficult for her to walk.

At the age of 16, doctors found that Fathin had two uteruses and she had two surgeries to remove cysts on her uterus.

On top of that, she has only one kidney and was born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, which causes low oxygen levels in the blood. This leads to cyanosis (a bluish-purple colour to the skin).

She tires easily under great stress and is often accompanied by her mother who keeps a watchful eye on her.

Fathin now goes for regular check-ups to monitor both her uterus and heart conditions and takes painkillers if necessary.

Her delicate health did not scare her off joining I Love OPM to chase her dreams.

Thankfully, she experienced no complications during the competition.

"Sometimes, the waiting time can be quite long and if I don't eat, I feel slightly faint. But this is all part of the experience, which I will remember," she said.

Music is a family affair

For Fathin Amira Zubir, music runs deep in her blood.

Her composer-singer father, Mr Zubir Abdullah, is a prolific name in the traditional Malay music industry here.

The 51-year-old veteran also teaches studies in Malay music as an elective at Nanyang Technological University and the National Institute of Education.

Fathin Amira Zubir (first from left) is part of traditional music ensemble Orkes Budi, which was started by her parents Masayu Johari (fourth from left) and Zubir Abdullah (third from left), and includes two other musician friends. Photo: Orkes Budi

Fathin's mother, Madam Masayu Johari, 46, is also a singer.

Her parents have been performing at weddings and other functions since the early 90s.

In 2007, they set up their own traditional Malay music ensemble Orkes Budi, which also comprises Fathin and two of their musician friends.

Orkes Budi is widely in demand, performing at wedding gigs every Saturday and Sunday.

At times, they are booked as early as two years in advance.

As musicians themselves, Mr Zubir and Madam Masayu, who also have two sons aged 19 and 11, have lent their firstborn and only daughter constant support in her own music journey.

Mr Zubir told TNP: "Despite her medical condition, Fathin overcomes everything with passion and I see that as her strength. We do worry but there is nothing that can change (the situation) so we can only carry on as per normal.

"Joining I Love OPM is her biggest step so far and she was so brave to do it. That makes me not think twice about supporting her. If I question her and ask 'Are you sure?', that is already a discouragement."

On his advice to her, he said: "We come from a family of musicians and that invites comparison. But I always tell her, don't be like me... Be better or on par."


Fathin might not have come out tops at I Love OPM, but her parents could not be prouder.

Said Madam Masayu: "We know she did her best and I knew how much she really wanted it. As parents, we never put pressure on her.

"For all our dreams and ambitions that we are unable to achieve, Fathin is doing just that and we will continue to encourage her to do even better and support her."

This article was first published on May 10, 2016.
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