Singaporean overcomes ill health to hit high notes in Philippines

Ms Fathin has won praise for her rendition of Filipino songs on the I Love OPM reality show, which airs on the Philippines' biggest TV network.
Ms Fathin has won praise for her rendition of Filipino songs on the I Love OPM reality show, which airs on the Philippines' biggest TV network.TNP FILE PHOTO

Singaporean Fathin Amira Zubir was born with a hole in her heart. By two, she had had open-heart surgery. When she turned 16, doctors discovered that she had two uteri and only one kidney.

Growing up, she recalls days spent mostly indoors and alone. To keep her spirits up, she turned to singing at age 11, and found her wings.

Her wings have taken her lately to a country where singing is a national pastime and nearly every household that can afford it has a karaoke machine: the Philippines.

Since Feb 13, the diminutive 24-year-old wedding singer from Bukit Panjang has been belting out Filipino songs with a near-perfect Tagalog accent in the top-rating and Twitter-trending I Love OPM (Original Pinoy Music) reality show, which airs every Saturday and Sunday on ABS-CBN, the Philippines' biggest TV network.

In her last outing on March 6, she brought the house down with her rendition of love song Paano? (What Now?). "You shook us to our core with that song," said show judge Toni Gonzaga, a TV host and singer.

TRANSCENDING LANGUAGE

Many Tagalog and Malay words share the same meaning, and the pronunciation is the same... Even if you can't understand the words, everything about them is so relatable, heart-warming, pure and genuine.

SINGER FATHIN AMIRA ZUBIR, who said it was a natural choice for her to perform Tagalog songs.

With her powerful voice, she is among 12 contestants - from countries that include the US, Russia, Pakistan, South Korea, India and Singapore - who have made it to the next round from the original field of 24.

Music is in her DNA. Her father Zubir Abdullah, 50, is a Nanyang Technological University music lecturer and champion of traditional Malay music in Singapore. Her mother Masayu Johari, 45, sings professionally, as do Ms Fathin's two younger siblings. Ms Fathin and her parents also form the core of Orkes Budi, a band much sought after in Singapore for Malay weddings and other events.

Ms Fathin is a seasoned reality singing contest participant who was in Singapore Idol 3, The Final 1 and SG Mania, making it to the top nine, top 40 and top four respectively.

She sang her first Tagalog song - Bakit Pa? (Why Bother?), a ballad about unrequited love that she learnt from a Filipina she met at a salon - in the 2009 season of Singapore Idol. She chose it for a segment requiring contestants to perform songs not in their native language.

It was a natural choice, she said. "Many Tagalog and Malay words share the same meaning, and the pronunciation is the same."

Tagalog and Malay songs, especially ballads, move emotions in much the same way, she said. "Even if you can't understand the words, everything about them is so relatable, heart-warming, pure and genuine."

Videos of her singing Bakit Pa? caught the attention of talent scouts at ABS-CBN, and earned her a slot at I Love OPM.

She said her I Love OPM stint has opened to her a nation less prosperous than Singapore, but as determined to rise above adversity. She has seen children in Manila's streets who probably would have little chance of survival had they, like her, been born with a hole in the heart.

"They lived in tents, and they were begging for money and food, but they were still smiling. Life, for them, goes on. They make do with whatever they have," she said.

Ms Fathin is hoping I Love OPM will open to her a much larger singing career outside Singapore.

But for now, "I am enjoying the moment", she said. "It has already been a winning experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'S'porean overcomes ill health to hit high notes in Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe