Making Penang Their Home – By Cheering Up Others

loading The IWA Clubhouse at Lembah Permai.

The International Women’s Association of Penang erases national boundaries with songs and snacks.

The sweet sounds of a four-part harmony choir fill the halls of orphanages, homes and charitable organisations twice a year whenever the International Women’s Association (IWA) choir make their rounds to spread cheer and joy.

“We have more than 40 members aged eight to 80. Some of the husbands join in the choir as tenors and bass,” says Marlene Fox, the coordinator for the choir and the current president of the IWA. “We have various nationalities – British, Australians, Germans, French, Japanese, Koreans and Malaysians, too.”

George Swalwell conducting during choir practise.

Set up 35 years ago in 1982, the IWA provides a support network for women from more than 30 countries, including Malaysians. Being an expatriate can be rather unnerving, especially if it is your first time living away from home. Originally from the east coast of Scotland, Marlene and her husband, Douglas Fox, have called Penang home for the past 17 years; the couple bought their first home here in Penang in 1995.

Douglas visited Penang in 1963 when he was posted to Malacca and Seremban by the British Army. He fell in love with the country. “Douglas and I have always wanted to retire here. Although we occasionally travel abroad, we still spend most of our time here on the island where Douglas can enjoy driving his vintage and classic cars all year round. We love the weather and of course, all the makan,” says Marlene.

A more recent arrival, Kim Saunders, the second vice president of the IWA, has been living here with her husband for over four years, and has been in and around South East Asia for more than three decades. The couple lived in Singapore for 16 years before moving to Penang, looking for a more relaxed pace. “We love it here because of all the great friends that I have found through the IWA. Getting around Penang is easy too and linguistically, there is no problem as almost everyone speaks and understands English. Most of all, Penang is a very affordable place to live. We both love history, culture and heritage and when I first visited Penang in 1984, I dreamed about being able to live here.”

The choir performing at the Penang Home for the Infirm and Aged.

Saunders connected with the IWA through yoga. Apart from yoga and the choir, the IWA organises events, activities, outings and get-together lunches, dinners, coffee sessions and pot-luck parties. There is also a craft group; qigong and line dancing class; game sessions for mah-jong, bridge and canasta; and regular talks on subjects covering culture, medical issues and food. From time to time, the IWA holds courses on fitness, art and language, while the Book Club meets up at members’ houses.

Marlene is also the vice chairman of the Penang branch of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO). Through NCWO, Marlene organised a presentation to over 150 teenagers on people trafficking and refugees. In addition, IWA members participated in information programmes on human trafficking and domestic violence. “I think we all have a role to play when it comes to human rights no matter where we are. Human trafficking affects women and children and the problem is transnational, which means all of us are involved. We will closely monitor this issue and try to help in whatever way we can,” says Marlene.

The IWA also supports local charities and organises fund-raising events, and it serves as a performance platform for members and their children. Just recently, the IWA organised a dinner event which showcased an internationally renowned singer from Japan, Momoko Kanazawa, whose parents are retirees residing in Penang. Her next performance in Penang will be on April 18.

Lifting Spirits through Music

Marlene Fox

Marlene Fox.

Marlene has a very good voice herself and often sings at charity events. “Before the start of every season, George Swalwell [retired music teacher and IWA’s choir director since 2006] and I will choose about 30 or so repertoires – some old, some new. And by the end of the season, we would have enough to stage a performance for a duration of between 30 to 45 minutes,” says Marlene.

Both Marlene and George are actively involved in Penang’s music scene. “We love the way people’s faces light up when they hear us sing. A four-part harmony choir requires much work but our dedicated members have made all this possible and we practise every Tuesday morning. Our visits to the elderly, orphans, blind, sick and disabled are an integral part of our association as an outreach into the community.”

The first season usually starts after Chinese New Year, and the choir sings a whole variety of songs including favourites from musicals such as The Sound of Music, Annie, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. For the second season, the choir prepares Christmas songs consisting of hymns, classics and popular Christmas carols. The choir also sings local Malay and Chinese tunes such as “Rasa Sayang”, “Chan Mali Chan”, “Mo Li Hua” and “Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin”

Cracker workshop

Cracker workshop.

At the pinnacle of each season, the choir performs for charity centres and homes including Cheshire Home, Joblink, Home for the Infirm and Aged, Charis Hospice Centre, The Little Sisters of the Poor, Silver Jubilee Home, Mount Miriam and St. Nicholas’ Home. The choir also sings at Christmas Tree Lightings and other commercial and charity events. “The income from the commercial events assists the choir in covering expenses incurred during performances, such as curry puffs and cakes for the audiences and also the maintenance of the equipment,” says Marlene.

And the choir is always well received. “We really welcome their visits. The choir performs so very well,” says Daniel Soon, executive director at St. Nicholas’ Home, a home for the visually impaired. “They never fail to visit us year after year with their wonderful songs and with snacks that they give out to our residents after their performance. We are very touched by their kindness and are grateful for their support and commitment; the IWA even organised a concert to raise funds for the home’s van. They are indeed angels.”

Another venue is the Silver Jubilee Home for the Aged in Sungai Dua. After performing in the main hall, the choir visits the ladies’ ward, then the men’s ward, to sing and cheer up over 200 residents for nearly three hours. After the songs, the singers hand out curry puffs and cakes, taking time to hold hands, smile, chat and take photos.

IWA choir members lunch get-together.

With the IWA, the distance between countries is removed and the world becomes a much smaller, friendlier and warmer place.

The IWA Clubhouse is located at 28, Lebuh Lembah Permai 4. The membership fee is RM150 annually and members are eligible to all activities at the clubhouse, including the library. The office is open weekdays from 9.30am to 12.30pm. A calendar of events and activities for the current month is available. All ladies are welcome to join; call +604 898 2540 or email

Carolyn Khor is a pluviophile who enjoys a good book alongside an aromatic cup of coffee. A music teacher by profession, she was also a contributor to MSN, the Penang Green Council and many other online and print publications.

Carolyn Khor is a pluviophile who enjoys a good book alongside an aromatic cup of coffee. A music teacher by profession, she was also a contributor to MSN, the Penang Green Council and many other online and print publications.

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