Saturday, October 24, 2020

Eligible Muslims wait in line as special haj quotas abused and sold

Politicians and elected representatives have been the biggest recipients of haj quotas over the decades.

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A controversial practice of allocating special haj quotas to government leaders is believed to have continued until as recently as last year, despite indications by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government at the time that it would do away with it, MalaysiaNow has learnt.

The practice sees VIPs such as ministers and MPs given special haj slots as a gesture of courtesy by the Saudi government.

However, sources familiar with such allocations said it was an “open secret” that these slots had been sold to travel agents who operate the haj and umrah pilgrimages using the Furada visa – privately managed haj journeys – without going through the Pilgrims Fund Board (Tabung Haji), the government agency tasked with managing the annual pilgrimage for Malaysian Muslims.

A privately organised haj journey using the Furada visa could cost around RM20,000, depending on the class of air travel and accommodation.

It is understood that the Saudi government has been dishing out an unlimited number of Furada visas as gifts to imams, Islamic teachers, members of the royalty, and politicians.

“It is up to the discretion of the ambassador,” Razali Mohd Sham, president of the Association for Travel Agencies of Umrah & Hajj Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.

Ministers given haj quotas

An investigation by MalaysiaNow reveals that politicians and elected representatives have been the biggest recipients of haj quotas over the decades.

“Usually, their assistants liaise with the embassy. But once the quota is given, they sell it to the travel agency,” said a senior government officer who is familiar with the allocation of free haj quotas.

He said as recently as last year, at least two senior ministers in the PH government were given special haj quotas from the Saudi government.

“The practice was a norm during the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration. But it was continued under PH although they said they would do away with it,” he told MalaysiaNow.

MalaysiaNow is withholding the names of the ministers pending a response.

Muslim worshippers circle the kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, in the city Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo: AP

In December 2018, then-deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Fuziah Salleh, said the government would no longer allow MPs and ministers to receive haj quotas, a move she said was to ensure transparency.

She also said that the haj quotas belonged to the general public.

She reportedly said that the allocation of special quotas as practised by the BN government had denied many elderly Muslims a chance to perform the pilgrimage.

When contacted, she declined to comment but said the special quotas through the Furada visas would not be at the cost of those registered with Tabung Haji.

“It is the Saudi government’s policy, and we have no say in it,” she said.

A senior officer of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission meanwhile agreed that any act of cashing out on free haj quotas would be tantamount to corruption.

Haj politics

The allocation of such quotas often denied the general Muslim public who had registered with Tabung Haji and were awaiting their turn the opportunity to perform the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims registered with Tabung Haji are selected to perform the haj based on several criteria, with priority given to the elderly and those going for the first time.

Even so, many first-timers find themselves in a queue, with some told to wait more than 10 years for their turn.

“Every year, these special quotas for VIPs would be at the cost of more deserving Malaysian Muslims who were forced to wait for years to perform the haj due to country limitations set by the Saudi Arabian government,” a former government aide said, requesting anonymity.

The Saudi government currently allows about 31,000 Malaysians to perform the haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which attracts some two million Muslims from around the world in what amounts to a huge logistics exercise for Riyadh.

The quota system for each country is calculated based on 0.1% of its population, and was introduced to prevent overcrowding during the haj season.

The quota system was enforced just a year after a bloody confrontation between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces in the holy mosque of Mecca in July 1987, which killed more than 400 pilgrims according to Saudi estimates.

Muslim countries including Malaysia have lobbied in various ways with the Saudis for the allocation of more slots, with many governments careful to maintain a cordial relationship with Riyadh in order to achieve this.

As calculations are based on the country’s population, not the size of its Muslim community, the quota system works in favour of Malaysian Muslims who, at just about 60% of the population, get larger haj allocations.

Still, the increasing number of Malaysian pilgrims over the years has meant that the quota remains insufficient.

In 2019, the last time the haj took place before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the suspension of the massive annual gathering, Malaysia was given a quota of 30,200 pilgrims without any increase.

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