BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah has questioned religious authorities’ commitment in helping the underprivileged, noting that poor zakat (tithe) management still persists.

Delivering his titah during an unscheduled visit to the religious affairs ministry on Wednesday, the sultan said there were reports of zakat recipients experiencing problems with the Brunei Islamic Religious Council (MUIB).

MUIB is responsible for collection and disbursement of tithes but there are doubts over its proactiveness in helping the poor, he said.

“Zakat applicants and recipients were said to have visited the MUIB office repeatedly to settle matters. In addition, members of the public also have difficulty reaching the department via telephone,” the monarch added.

This is not the first time the sultan raised concerns on poor zakat management. In 2018, His Majesty had called for zakat reforms as redistribution of wealth can lift people out of poverty.

Zakat is a religious obligation. Muslims whose wealth sits above the minimum threshold are obliged to pay 2.5 percent ‘tax’ on their assets, known as zakat harta, which is then redistributed to the needy and new converts to Islam.

His Majesty delivers a titah at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Photo: Infofoto

Late payment of rent

The sultan also raised the issue of late payments to landlords who rent out homes to welfare recipients under MUIB’s Baitulmal housing rental scheme.

There were reports that some homeowners only received payments after two years, he said.

Under the Baitulmal scheme, MUIB is responsible for finding and renting properties for Bruneians who are in need of housing.

A total of 3,773 heads of households are registered as welfare recipients under MUIB, government figures showed.

Call to review halal laws

His Majesty then called on the religious affairs ministry to review and strengthen halal laws, specifically the Halal Certificate and Halal Label Order.

He said authorities have not been “sensitive” in managing cases that violate provisions under Section 37 of the Halal Certificate and Halal Label Order.

He cited an example where a restaurant was fined $800 for storing alcohol and meat with no halal label in 2018.

“In view of these cases, all matters related to the Order must be reviewed, including whether the laws are no longer relevant and is there a need to amend the laws.

“Furthermore, in cases related to Syariah, the law must be reviewed to make amendments or whether it is appropriate to be repealed and replaced with another. This is common in dealing with legal matters,” His Majesty said.

The Halal Certificate and Halal Label Order was amended in 2017, making it compulsory for businesses in the food and beverage industry to apply for halal certification unless they are serving non-halal food for non-Muslims.

His Majesty made an unscheduled visit to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Photo: Infofoto

Poor work ethics of imams

The monarch went on to say there are not enough imams (the prayer leader of a mosque) compared to the number of mosques in the country.

“Is this because we are facing a shortage of religious graduates to meet our needs?”

He said there were complaints of some imams not turning up for prayers.

“It is common for the ministry [to say] that its weaknesses are due to the lack of funding or budget allocation. Are the imams’ shortcomings related to budget allocation too?,” he continued.

Lack of job opportunities for religious graduates

Raising concerns on insufficient number of religious teachers, the monarch questioned the effectiveness of the Religious Education Service Scheme in tackling teacher shortages.

“There seems to be confusion in the management and administration whereby some teachers were pulled to carry out duties as imams and mosque officers, while issues on lack of religious teachers are not being addressed,” he said.

The sultan said many Seri Begawan Religious Teachers University College’s (KUPU SB) graduates remain unemployed.

“The issue of not having enough imams should not arise as there are many religious graduates, either from local or religious education institutions abroad, who still do not have jobs,” he added.

His Majesty during an unscheduled visit to Ministry of Religious Affairs. Picture: Infofoto

Issues in teaching, learning of Arabic language

His Majesty reiterated that Arabic school students are still weak in mastering the Arabic language.

He said Brunei has seven Arabic schools and the religious affairs ministry has a strategic plan to ensure its religious education is effective in producing intellects and professionals through Arabic language programmes.

“This plan looks good on paper, but we want the outcome to be better. To get good results, it requires a comprehensive evaluation on the teachers, teaching methods and training.

If the conventional teaching method is no longer relevant, why don’t we create a new and relevant method? This is a question that should be considered,” he added.

Touching on student welfare, he said school buildings including residences of Bruneian students in Egypt, must be inspected and maintained to ensure there are no health and safety issues.