The codes that connects
Page Number :
The code that connects
By YONG TIAM KUI
IT was in the mid-1830s that Samuel Morse came up with what is known as
the Morse Code. Today it is used almost exclusively by amateur radio
operators. But, writes YONG TIAM KUI, even among their ranks, many feel
that this mode of communication is outdated and no longer of any
HARDLY anybody uses the Morse code anymore. But the Malaysian
Communications and Multimedia Commission is still holding Morse Code
tests several times a year.
This is because the country's amateur radio operators, known
affectionately as hams, are required to have a Morse code speed of 40
words per minute to be eligible to apply for a Class A ham radio licence.
This is unusually stringent as the Conference of Postal and
Telecommunications Administrations lowered the amateur radio Morse code
test speed requirement for all European countries to just five words per
minute in 2001.
Two years ago, the World Radio Communication Conference of 2003
recommended that the International Morse Code requirement for amateur
radio licensing be made optional.
A number of countries, including Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium,
Britain, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand,
Australia, Luxembourg, Singapore and Papua New Guinea, have already
dropped their Morse testing requirements altogether.
A Class A licence is greatly coveted by Malaysian hams because it gives
them the right to operate on an unlimited range of frequency bands
allotted to amateur radio. This allows them to communicate with fellow
hams practically anywhere in the world.
A Class B ham radio licence limits them to a much narrower band of
frequencies that are only good for "line of sight" communications.
This means that their radio signals cannot be transmitted beyond a
distance of 30km or if there is a physical barrier, such as a mountain,
in the way.
However, hams in Peninsular Malaysia with Class B licences are luckier
than their counterparts in Sabah and Sarawak. There is a system of relay
stations around the peninsula which enables them to talk to each other.
MCMC has indicated that the Morse Code requirement will no longer be a
mandatory requirement from April 1, 2007.
For many Malaysian hams, this particular April Fool's Day couldn't come
sooner as they feel that Morse Code is utterly irrelevant as they can
also make use of SMS and email to communicate with hams worldwide if
However, hams belonging to the old school hold that doing away with the
Morse Code test would be detrimental and contrary to the heritage of ham
They believe that the Morse Code will always remain relevant because it
can be used under difficult conditions when other modes are unavailable
or are not in working order.
The split between the opposing camps is mostly along generational lines
and this is reflected among the Chows who are a family of avid hams.
Like most older hams, Dr Chow Chee Onn, 58, hails from the old school
of thought. He feels that Morse Code is an important part of the ham
radio hobby and should be kept in use if possible.
However, being of a flexible frame of mind, he concedes that hams who
feel otherwise should not be forced to take the Morse Code test.
"I feel that it is good to learn the Morse Code but it shouldn't be
made mandatory," he adds.
After all, says Chow, many hams who take the trouble to master the code
do not have much opportunity to make use of it.
His son, Sion Chow Qi Chao, who is vehemently opposed to the Morse Code
requirement, has steadfastly refused to take the test even though he
would love to get hold of a Class A licence.
He's making do with his Class B licence. And, despite all its
constraints, the 21-year-old computer science graduate has managed to
befriend hams in Japan, Thailand, Philippines and India by riding onto
non-commercial amateur radio satellites whose footprints are in the
He has also managed to make contact with astronauts Mike Fincke (Oct 8,
2004) and Sergei Krikalev (Aug 27, 2005) at the International Space
Sion's hearty dislike of the Morse Code test is shared by Mrs Chow. She
would gladly see it abolished.
Mrs Chow says she decided to get into the hobby because the ham radio
is a more reliable way for her to stay in contact with her husband.
"He often forgets to take his handphone but his ham radio is always
with him. It's also a lot cheaper than using a handphone," she adds.
Chow's involvement with ham radio began during his schooldays in Ipoh.
"I became interested when I was in Form III in Sam Tet Chinese
"We built our own amplifiers to listen in to radio communications. When
I was at the Technical College (now University of Technology), I made use
of the facilities of the ham radio club."
A civil engineer, Chow enjoys designing antennae for improved reception
of radio signals.
In fact, he has built a large iron framework as a base for the antennae
right next to the wall of his corner house in USJ15, Selangor.
"I wanted to share my knowledge with my son. He's now more advanced
than I am," he adds.
Chow has invested some RM40,000 in equipment for the hobby but he says
beginners can start with equipment costing as little as RM800.
"When you have got nothing to do, you can talk to somebody. If my son
and wife don't want to talk to me, I can talk to other people!
"In time of distress, you can help in rescue work. You can still
operate on battery when the electricity supply goes."
THE International Morse Code uses a pattern of long and short pulses to
represent the letters of the alphabet and the 10 numerals.
These long and short pulses are translated into electrical signals
using a telegraph key.
The electrical signals are translated back into the alphabetic
characters by an operator at receiving end.
The Morse Code was used extensively from the 1890s. With the
development of more advanced communications technologies, it is now
The Morse Code was replaced as an international standard for maritime
communication by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System in 1999.