More S'pore pilgrims can go on haj

SINGAPORE - Another 136 Singaporean pilgrims will get the chance to perform the haj this year after the Republic's quota was increased.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said 680 people will travel to Mecca, up from the expected 544.

The change came after Saudi Arabia - which hands out quotas to each country wanting to send pilgrims - reinstated 136 places that had earlier been cut due to expansion works near the Holy Mosque. All of them have since been allocated.

Dr Yaacob said the Saudi government is still considering a request to increase Singapore's official haj quota to 800 next year, in view of its population growth.

Each country is allowed to send 0.1 per cent of its Muslim population - currently 680 for Singapore.

Saudi Arabia used to give out additional visas to countries on top of their official quotas. However, it stopped the practice last year when works near the mosque began.

Singapore was awarded 1,500 additional visas each year from 2008 to 2011.

Dr Yaacob said: "We hope when the work is completed, they will be able to reinstate and give us the higher quota that we want."

He also appealed for patience from the Muslim community, saying: "At the end of the day, this is really up to the Saudi government."

The haj is one of Islam's five basic requirements. All Muslims must carry it out at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford to.

The pilgrimage costs an average of $10,000 per person.

Dr Yaacob said he received a letter about the reinstatement last Tuesday.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) then sprang into action, calling applicants to determine who could make it.

Motivational trainer Moha-mad Azhar Abdullah, 47, is among the 136 who now have the chance to go. It will be the first time he is performing the haj.

Mr Azhar applied to make the pilgrimage three years ago. The news that he is finally going took him by surprise.

"I'm highly motivated," he said. "This is once in a lifetime, and not everybody has a chance to go. Those who can are blessed. I consider myself a lucky person."

Muis revised its haj registration policy in March to give priority to first-time applicants, who will be allocated 90 per cent of places in any given year.

Repeat pilgrims will have to wait 10 years before they are allowed to register for the haj again, up from the current five.

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