Malaysia scraps new system for Muslim pilgrims after uproar

KUALA LUMPUR • The Malaysian government yesterday abruptly cancelled 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 earlier, on Friday, saying it was meant to better manage Muslim pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia.

But she told a news conference yesterday that the plan has been dropped.

Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted yesterday 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 in his tweet.

With the general election just months away, it was unclear why the government chose to launch the system as it would affect Malay Muslims, its major vote bank.

Under the system, each pilgrim must pay an extra RM90.10 (S$30) to visit the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina 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 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 on pilgrimage each year, Imams would collect a revenue of over RM18 million a year.

But the insertion of the unpopular GST into the cost of 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: "Why is a company set up six days ago appointed to supervise Imams? For Papuh, the handling of the system isn't clear."

Word of the new system spread quickly online when Malay rights group Isma put up the news on social media and identified the shareholders of the company managing Imams.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia scraps new system for Muslim pilgrims after uproar'. Print Edition | Subscribe