Jennani Durai – Straits Times Indonesia
Nearly 700 Muslims in Singapore have had to abandon their hajj pilgrimage plans at the eleventh hour after they failed to get the visas promised by their travel agents.
The would-be pilgrims need visas to perform the hajj at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. But even though Singapore was allocated 2,180 visas this year, an additional 652 people applied.
The Saudi authorities, however, did not approve these additional ones, which are categorised as “goodwill visas.”
They had been requested by the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore (Amtas), and the request was supported by the Saudi ambassador.
A further glitch in the application process meant that some of those who appealed for goodwill visas managed to get the official visas, while those who qualified for the official ones did not get them.
In a statement last night, Amtas said this was “a deeply disappointing turn of events for the community.”
It said it had approached Jamil Mahmoud Merdad, the Saudi ambassador to Singapore, for help in procuring additional visas, and he had assured them that they would get them.
Last year, some 400 goodwill visas were issued by the Saudi Embassy.
However, the association found out last week that additional hajj visas could not be processed and generated once the approved number of hajj places for Singapore – 2,180 – had been reached.
The kingdom controls the number of visas given out – limiting them to just 0.1 percent of the Muslim population in each country – to control crowds in Mecca and Medina during the hajj season.
The hajj is one of the five basic requirements of Islam, which all Muslims who have the means should perform at least once in their lifetime. It costs at least $6,000 per person.
The hajj is performed in the days leading up to and after Hari Raya Haji, which falls on Nov 6 this year.
Last night, some 700 people who were slated to travel with T.M. Fouzy Travel and Tours showed up at the An-Nadhah Mosque in Bishan to hear the agency’s chief executive explain what had happened. Among those who turned up were pilgrims who had already received their visas, and several who had been rejected but were still hopeful.
Nur Zahira Mohamed Ali was there to support her mother, Madam Faridah Kadir Mastan, 56, who was still fretfully waiting to see if she would get a visa.
“She’s already told everyone she’s going, so she will be quite sad,” said Zahira, 25.
This year, Singapore was originally allocated just 680 visas. On the appeal of the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, Yaacob Ibrahim, another 1,500 visas were allocated, making a total of 2,180.
The applicants who have a right to these are given category A and B visas. These are typically pilgrims who are older and have never performed the hajj.
Those who did not get the official visas but appealed for the goodwill visas were placed in categories C and D.
But an Islamic Religious Council (Muis) statement last night revealed that “some 316 visas had already been issued by the embassy to the appeal cases (category C and D) before category A and B applications were fully processed”.
The Saudi Embassy then said that no more visas could be issued, denying 316 category A and B applicants the visas they should have received.
Among that number was Madam Habibah S. D., a civil servant.
The 46-year-old said she had applied last year to go on this year’s hajj.
“Those of us who were within the original 2,180 deserve an explanation as to why this has happened,” she said. “I am very disappointed. I had taken time off work and made all the arrangements.”
Muis last night said that Yaacob had appealed to the Saudi authorities to allow the affected category A and B applicants to be issued their visas. But the appeal was unsuccessful.
It added that it will now give priority to these applicants to perform their hajj next year. It also urged the applicants to either seek a full refund from their travel agents or to agree to keep their fees for use next year.
Last night, Tengku Mohamad Fouzy, owner of T.M. Fouzy Travel and also the president of Amtas, told the 700 pilgrims at the mosque that his agency would bear the cost of the mishap.
A few times during his impassioned speech, he asked the crowd if they were angry – to which they murmured “no.”
He appealed to them to accept the outcome with open hearts, as the purpose of the trip was religious.
He said in Malay: “It may be a blessing in disguise. If you don’t get to go this year, perhaps it is because there is something better for you next year.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to
Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.