23 November 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Muslims in prosperous Singapore are spending more money when they travel on a religious haj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, compared with previous years when they scrimped and saved, and they are also now going when they are younger.

"Decades back, the pilgrims went in their 50s and 60s. Now, we even have people in their 20s willing to perform the haj," said geopolitics professor Cedomir Nestorovic at the Singapore campus of the ESSEC Business School Paris-Singapore.

"This was unimaginable 50 years ago. They have the money, and when they go, they want the best," Nestorovic told Singapore's Straits Times newspaper.

"The first thing we have to stress, the haj is a spiritual journey. So for those lucky enough to go, this is the journey of their lives," said the French professor, who also teaches marketing in Islamic communities.

The average Singaporean pilgrim pays US $10,400 for a 30-day package tour to Mecca, Nestorovic said.

Many Singaporeans pay extra because they can afford upmarket hotels and luxury package tours.

Singapore's deals are less expensive compared with its northern neighbor, Muslim-majority Malaysia, where similar 30-day package tours to Mecca cost several thousand dollars more, according to the Straits Times report published on Oct. 7.

Mohamed Roslan Jaafar, honorary secretary of the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore, agreed with Nestorovic.

"Those who can afford the trip know that the weather and rites to be done can be physically demanding, so if they can afford it, they're now willing to go earlier," Roslan told the paper.

Singapore's 5.4 million population includes a 15 percent Muslim community, compared to 43 percent who are Buddhist.

Singapore's government lists "eligibility requirements" for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who want to go on a haj, which conform to rules for all foreign pilgrims set by Saudi Arabia.

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A "female applicant below 45 years old must apply together with her accompanied Mahram," who is defined as "a male consort" such as her husband or, for single females, a male related by blood such as her father, brother or uncle.

According to the most recent statistics published by Singapore's government, 2,180 citizens and permanent residents pilgrimaged to Mecca in 2010.

That was a decline from 2007's total of 2,787 people and earlier peaks in 2000 when 4,412 went, and during 1996 which recorded 4,872 pilgrims.

The highest number during the past 30 years occurred when 5,216 Singaporean Muslim citizens and permanent residents traveled to Mecca in 1992.

The pilgrimage "should be performed at least once during one's lifetime, provided that one is able financially and physically," a statement from Singapore's Jamae Mosque said.

"The importance of this final pillar of Islam lies in the unity it symbolizes with Muslims from all corners of the world wearing the same white garb, responding to the call of haj in one voice and language."

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)