It was Malaysia-based Islamic Cruise's first luxury jaunt targeting international passengers, but its start was far from smooth-sailing.
Three foreign Muslim preachers it invited to join the five-day spiritual voyage from Singapore to Aceh were no-shows. They were Zimbabwean Ismail Menk, Malaysian Haslin Baharim - popularly known as Ustaz Bollywood for his Hindi-inspired singing abilities - and American Muslim Yusuf Estes. Mr Menk and Mr Haslin, who were engaged as speakers, were banned in October from entering Singapore over their hardline and divisive teachings.
Mr Estes, who was invited as a guest to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary, was denied entry into Singapore on Nov 24 for having expressed views the authorities said are "unacceptable" and "contrary" to the values of multiracial and multi-religious Singapore.
After being turned back to Malaysia, he flew to Banda Aceh to address cruise passengers when the ship arrived there on Monday.
Islamic Cruise owner Suhaimi Abd Ghafer told more than 1,000 passengers - mostly Malaysians - on board the Italian-owned luxury ship Costa Victoria in a welcome speech on Nov 25 the cruise had been the "craziest challenge" for him. "We were tested with the ban of well-known religious teachers but I don't want to comment much on that," he said. He added that 1,200 passengers from a corporate sponsor had pulled out, leaving him with only 400 people.
He had to look for replacements to fill the cruise operator's minimum quota of 1,000 or the ship would not sail, so the firm launched a "Buy 1, Free 1 crazy deal" to entice customers. "I know there will be people who will be angry but what choice do I have? Tell me, should I cancel this cruise?" he said.
Row over photos and videos taken on board
Half a dozen grim faces stared down at me as I wrapped up my final interview of the day.
An Islamic Cruise official pointed his phone camera at me while another said I had "seriously breached laws", filming passengers "without approval". They angrily demanded that I hand over my phone or delete all my photos and videos.
I was puzzled. Two nights ago, I had introduced myself as a journalist to company founder Suhaimi Abd Ghafer and strategic and media communications director Kyairul Syahirin Ahmad, and sought permission about writing a report. They had agreed, but had suddenly changed their tune. They were miffed I had asked people about the preacher ban. "Why must you bring up Menk? You are provoking people," Mr Kyairul said, referring to Mr Ismail Menk, a preacher barred from entering Singapore.
I wanted to make a phone call to my editor in Singapore. "No!" they roared. Their phone camera captured my every movement like a hawk.
Staff from the Italian-owned cruise ship Costa Victoria stepped in to ease the tensions. They escorted me to get my press pass from my cabin and took me to their office. They offered water, spoke nicely and made me feel safe. The biggest relief was being told they would not take my reporting material.
I told Mr Suhaimi and Mr Kyairul deleting everything was "no-go", but agreed to delete video interviews with passengers who spoke about the preachers.
They said I could re-shoot, but with a chaperone. Better some footage than none.
Then Mr Kyairul took me to dinner where the passengers were dressed like Arabian royalty.
Dressed in a long white robe, a smiling Mr Suhaimi asked: "Arlina, my guest, would you like to eat a lobster?"
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore told The Sunday Times that it does not keep track of Islamic cruises, or have any information on them. But Singapore's Mufti, Dr Fatris Bakaram, had said in an Oct 27 speech to religious teachers that "ideas on religion float around easily and quickly" in the challenging socio-religious landscape. "I wish to reiterate that Singaporean Muslims need to exercise caution and have a critical and enquiring mind," he added.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat said views of any banned person are accessible online and on social media.
"Banning itself may not work. What the Government is trying to do is to send a signal," he said.
"It's more a symbolic gesture to say that we stand firm against groups that do not suppport the ideas that the Muslim community here cherish. We are very much a multiracial, multi-religious society; we respect other faiths," he added.