By Diana Othman
Madam Rohaini Abdul Shukor told herself three years ago that she would go on the haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
The 51-year-old mother of four thought it would happen this year, but it turns out that the Saudi authorities have decided to cut down the number of pilgrims who can go this year. She is among those whose applications have been turned down.
She can either get a refund next year on what she paid the travel agent for the haj package or leave the money with the agent for the trip she will take next year or later.
She is going with the second option offered by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore.
About 3,000 Singapore pilgrims get to be among the two million Muslims who go to Mecca each year. But this year, only 2,180 will go. The first batch left on Sunday.
The Saudi authorities have cited construction in Mecca, including at the Grand Mosque and the areas around the Jamrah ritual site in the city of Mina, as the reason for the cutback.
Madam Rohaini said: "When I was informed that my application was unsuccessful, I was very upset. I had everything prepared."
Performing the haj is a milestone in the life of a Muslim. While in Mecca, a pilgrim has to perform a series of rituals including entering the Grand Mosque and walking in a counter-clockwise direction seven times around the Kaaba - a large stone structure constituting a single room with a marble floor regarded as Islam's most sacred site.
Ahead of the pilgrimage, Muslims here go through a three- month "preparation course" to learn how to perform these rituals, as well as how to keep safe and stay healthy, among other essentials.
Muslims may register their intention to go on the haj with Muis as early as five years in advance to try and secure a spot.
They pay up to $11,000 to their travel agents for haj packages, which include airfare, accommodation, transport, meals and other needs.
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim has made two last-ditch appeals to the Saudi government to secure more spots for Singapore pilgrims.
The second one went out last month. As of yesterday, The Straits Times had not been told of any change to the quota.
Dr Yaacob said: "I think at some point, we...have to decide that this is it and we have done our best, and we have to accept that the appeal has not been successful and move on."
The minister noted that the unsuccessful applicants have been gracious about missing out on this year's pilgrimage.
One unsuccessful haj applicant, a 55-year-old civil servant, is in a fix: His 53-year-old wife, also a civil servant, has been given a place to go this year, but does not want to go without him.
The pair had planned to go with relatives because "it is good to pray together and, moreover, we feel more comfortable going with our family".
His wife said in Malay: "If it is possible, we would like to go this year because next year, we don't know how our situation or our health will be like. We are getting older."
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 11, 2008.
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