The last telegram


The electric telegraph came to a quiet end, marking the end of an era

IN a muted and inconspicuous announcement, which was in sharp contrast to the memorable and vivid effects that the messages it has delivered for 138 years in different institutional guises has had on many Malaysians, Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM) informed its "valued customers" that its telegram service would be "discontinued effective  July 1, this year".  This put a last stop to a once-popular means of communication that began with the British intervention in Perak in 1874. Though TM has been using the computer rather than the teleprinter to receive and transmit the telegraphic messages, it is no small irony that the closure notice was published not only in print but also on its website, as it was more than anything else the spread of email on the Internet that was the nail in the coffin for telegrams.

In telegram's heyday, organisations and businesses of every kind as well as the man on the street used it to deliver good and bad tidings, from job interviews to family bereavement. But the 1,000 telegrams on the final day at TM Point Kota Baru, Kelantan were mostly from financial institutions using the service to serve formal notices of claims on their debtors rather than ordinary people trying to be the last to send a telegram offering congratulations or condolences. For TM, though telegram use has been declining and no longer its core business and a major contributor to its bottom line, closure was no big loss as it has long refocused its main business on voice, data and Internet services.

For older Malaysians, however, the quiet death of the telegram may stir bittersweet feelings and a nostalgic sense of loss. It is certainly interesting that telegrams are nowadays delivered as nostalgic novelty items in Sweden. But the truth is that there are not too many who remember the days when telegrams were the fastest and cheapest way to receive and transmit urgent messages of sorrow or success. Those days are certainly hazy for younger Malaysians who text messages on their mobile phones and send e-mails on the Internet. For sure, the brevity of the language of telegrams, which relied on abbreviated phrases and punctuation and omitted verbs and pronoun, is akin to the prose used on short-message services. Still, it would be hard for many to imagine that telegrams are anything but a thing for the past. It is certainly the end of an era. The surprising thing is that the telegram lasted longer in Malaysia than in many other countries which recognised the reality of its obsolescence years ago.

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