KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government abruptly cancelled on Saturday (Dec 16) a new system for visa applications and insurance for umrah (Islamic pilgrimages) following a public uproar.
Tourism and Culture Deputy Minister Mas Ermieyati Samsudin announced the introduction of the new system just a day ago on Friday, saying it was meant to better manage Muslim pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia.
But she told a news conference on Saturday that the plan has been dropped. Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted later to say he disagreed with the implementation of the Integrated Manasik Monitoring System or Imams.
"I disagree with the Imams system being used for umrah visas. The announcement to cancel it is the right one," he said.
With the general election just months away, it was unclear why the government chose to start the system on Friday, as it would affect the sentiments of Malay Muslims, its major votebank.
Under the system, each pilgrim would pay an extra RM90.10 (S$30) to visit the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Madinah in Saudi Arabia.
The extra fees consist of RM45 for using the new system, RM40 to buy insurance for each pilgrim, and RM5.10 for the goods and services tax (GST), Datuk Mas Ermieyati had said on Friday.
Each of the 65 Malaysian travel agents currently licensed to offer umrah packages would have to go through the company that manages Imams to get visas for their clients from the Saudi embassy. Each travel agent currently sends its own officers to the embassy.
A typical umrah package in Malaysia costs upwards of RM6,000 per person, meaning the new fees would add only 1.5 per cent in to the total cost.
With more than 200,000 Malaysians going for umrah each year, Imams would collect a revenue of more than RM18 million a year.
But the insertion of the unpopular GST into visits to the holy land, the introduction of a middleman company, and having a non-Muslim heading the company behind Imams raised the ire of many people.
The Association of Umrah and Haj Travel Agents, Papuh, said on Friday that the system, which had been discussed with the tourism ministry for several months, was unnecessary.
Papuh chairman Razali Mohd Sham told Astro Awani on Friday: "Why is a company set up six days ago appointed to supervise Imams? For Papuh, the handling of the system isn't clear".
The issue went viral after Malay rights group Isma put on social media news of the system's implementation and added its own research into shareholders of the company behind Imams.