Transformation on the Street: An Ex Banker’s Road to the Sydney Opera House

Nestled in an idyllic suburb of Kuala Lumpur bustles an entrepreneur with an amazing zest for life, hope and personal dreams. An ex-banker by profession, Joe Zainul had a desire he knew his 9-to-5 job would never fulfil. Despite working for five years with a global banking group, he continued to feel a pull towards a thought he once had when travelling in Australia – to headline at the Sydney Opera House.

“I knew when I was all suited up for my banking job upon my return to Malaysia, my desire was distilled from my time in Australia. After spending the early part of my working life in public relations and advertising, I set off for Australia to help my sister with her food truck business in Darwin,” says Joe.

There, he took the opportunity to visit the Sydney Opera House, spurred by a childhood interest in opera. Even though he never got the chance to take music lessons, he was always drawn to operatic singing and admired Luciano Pavarotti. Being at the world-famous performing arts centre awakened a new desire in himself – to sing at the Sydney Opera House.

In the meantime, it was back to reality for him after his stint in Australia. Upon his homecoming, he settled into his life as a banker. However, in time he could no longer deny his longing to pursue a career in opera. Determined to turn his dream into a reality, he set off to the Malaysian Institute of Arts (MIA) to enquire about their classical music programmes.

He found that the art school offered a two-and-a-half-year diploma programme in music, and that he could major in classical voice and minor in classical piano. Realising that he could equip himself with the tools needed to become a singer on one of the world’s biggest stages further fanned the flames of his dream.

However, there was a catch. The MIA required prospective students to have a minimum Grade 5 qualification from ABRSM, the internationally-recognised musical education body from the UK. Yet, Joe was determined not to let his lack of music training deter him. He succeeded in winning over the MIA’s Head of Department and voice teacher with his vocal audition alone, earning a place in its diploma programme.

Thus, he left his banking career behind and spent his days playing catch-up to his new MIA classmates, who were also 10 years younger than him. As he had no foundation in music theory, he would spend hours at a time receiving personal coaching from his instructors to shore up his musical knowledge. Within one year and while pursuing his diploma from MIA, he was able to sit for and pass the Grade 5 ABRSM exam, a qualification which usually takes five years to achieve.

As he was completing his diploma programme, Joe then auditioned for the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, one of the UK’s prestigious music and drama schools and concert venues. Starting off with a one-year post-graduate certificate, Joe continued to apply himself to his craft and finished with a Master’s in Music (Vocal Performance) on a scholarship from the Conservatoire.

With his music qualifications under his belt, he found himself frustrated upon his return to Malaysia, however. This was as the classical music scene remains undeveloped and limited to a select group of singers. This inspired him to take matters into his own hands and create his own platform to perform and put his musical training into practice. In early 2017, he opened the doors of biJÖEx, a semi-fine dining restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. In addition to running the restaurant, on weekends Joe can be found belting out popular tunes for his patrons.

Patrons dining at biJÖEx Café

With biJÖEx gaining a strong following with the lunch and weekend crowd, 18 months into this venture Joe is already expanding. In August 2018, he launched biJÖEx Café, which will also have a musical spin. He plans to invite buskers to perform at the outlet and help them earn a living, which he also sees as his way of giving back to his community.

But don’t be fooled. Joe remains dedicated to realising his dream of taking the stage at the Sydney Opera House. In fact, he already has plans to audition for as many performances as he can on the regional circuit where he believes there is greater opportunity for opera singers to gain exposure.

“When I took that trip to the Sydney Opera House and told myself I would return to sing there, I was dreaming big. I feel that if your dream does not scare you, it is not big enough. That dream frightens me to this day, but it’s something I’ve told myself I want to do, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

To Joe, his transformation journey probably awaits on the mammoth stage of the Sydney Opera House. Little does he know, however, that his undying passion has already resulted not only in his personal transformation, but more profoundly, that of the aspiring musicians who have found a voice through him. Joe is an example of how a burning desire to transform can overflow to transform the lives of others if we pursue it relentlessly. And looking at his persistence thus far, it doesn’t seem like he plans to quit anytime soon.


In conjunction with the musical theme of this article, we at PEMANDU Associates pay tribute to Aretha Franklin who passed away on 16 August 2018. She was an icon for music and women empowerment who inspired us with her talent and passion.

Reminding us that we could all use a little respect, we leave you with a quote from the Queen of Soul:  “I was asked what recording of mine I’d put in a time capsule, and it was ‘Respect.’ Because people want respect — even small children, even babies. As people, we deserve respect from one another.”