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2018: what lies on the horizon

Bu Gerard Ee

Being a true-blue Singaporean, I love my food. If you ask Singaporeans what their pastime is, they are highly likely to say they enjoy eating. This is not surprising given that eating is Singapore’s favourite national pastime. Hence, as I paint what lies ahead for the accountancy profession, I am going to connect it with food, specifically to the well-loved, and popular Cantonese “dim sum” which many of us enjoy.

According to Wikipedia, dim sum has its roots in travellers on the ancient Silk Road who needed a resting place. For these weary travellers, dim sum was to warm their hearts and fill their hungry stomachs before they continued the arduous journey ahead. A more romantic version refers to a royal concubine in ancient China who perfected the culinary art to capture the emperor’s heart.

I was having dim sum recently and, as my chopsticks landed on a piping hot siu mai in a bamboo steam basket, it struck me that the meticulous care and preparation that goes into making dim sum is similar to the efforts the Institute puts into developing initiatives for its members over the years.

… we will provide platforms for young accountants to strengthen and expand their professional network, learn and share with peers from across industries and broaden their perspectives, and put their minds together to discuss trends and challenges, and expand their knowledge.

Adapting to the Times

Disruptive forces have taken the world by storm in recent years, with technology probably the most disruptive of them all. Singapore has not been spared from the sweeping changes brought on by technology disruption. The confluence of new technologies is ubiquitous – from autonomous vehicles to cashless payments and a humanoid robot named Sophia which has been granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia, to name a few. New technologies have fundamentally changed how we live. It has also disrupted (and at times, destroyed) existing business models and created new ones. Think Airbnb and Uber. So how do we survive in such dynamic times?

In the world of food, there are disruptions too. We can imagine that dim sum served in the days of the Silk Road would be vastly different from the dim sum we eat today in teahouses and restaurants. Dim sum probably survived through the centuries because it evolved with the times and adapted well to the changing palates of different generations. This is exactly what we – as a chartered accountant, an Institute and a profession – need to do to adapt and transform with the times so as to remain relevant.

As the government positions Singapore for the future economy as guided by the report of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), the Institute has been taking concrete steps to prepare members and the profession to be future-ready. While ISCA can peer into the future, we cannot foretell it with certainty, especially with change happening at today’s lightning speed. It is thus important for the Institute to be able to feel the pulse of the business and accountancy sector in order to develop the right initiatives to future-proof the profession.

To do so, ISCA has increased the frequency of engagement with members through various platforms such as networking sessions with leaders of the accountancy firms, senior members in business and young professionals. The interaction with members is a valuable channel for ISCA to gather first-hand insights and feedback on the emerging needs of the accountancy profession. This will enable ISCA to develop initiatives that better support the needs of members in respect of the new economy. In turn, members can manoeuvre with greater confidence into the future.

… it struck me that the meticulous care and preparation that goes into making dim sum is similar to the efforts the Institute puts into developing initiatives for its members over the years.

Learning Agility Critical for Success in Today’s Dynamic World

Another possible reason why dim sum survived through the centuries is probably attributed to the lifelong learning attitude that dim sum masters had towards perfecting their craft. As a culinary art, dim sum requires the patience, dedication and passion of chefs to continuously hone their skills in making the tiny morsels visually attractive and tasty. Their learning agility – the ability to continually learn, unlearn and relearn – was critical in preserving and innovating the art of dim sum. As they learned traditional techniques, they also had to ditch old “rules” and pick up new knowledge to create even more exquisite dim sum dishes to keep up with changing palates.

The same can be said of the accountancy profession. Accountants today still learn the basic accounting principles, but we will have to ditch old ways such as manual audit sampling, and pick up new skills befitting the modern workplace, like data analytics.

In today’s technology-driven era, new knowledge and skills in areas such as data analytics, cybersecurity, coding (example, python for business) and blockchain are in demand. To address this emerging demand, ISCA has been rolling out continuing professional education (CPE) courses covering these topics. To further drive the Institute’s plan to improve the relevance and value of ISCA’s CPE programmes, a new CPE Committee was set up in early 2017. The Committee is tasked with providing strategic guidance on the development of CPE programmes and aligning them with the Skills Framework for Accountancy. The Committee is also responsible for identifying emerging training needs and translating them into CPE programmes.

Chartered accountants are starting from a position of strength as their rigorous professional training has provided them with a strong foundation to develop new skills to enter various specialisation fields. ISCA has been developing specialisation pathways to facilitate chartered accountants to transit into high growth practice areas.

Supporting ISCA’s Diverse Membership: Something for Everyone

Dim sum is ideal for gatherings and celebrations. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, there are as many as 150 dim sum items in a restaurant menu and 2,000 in the entire range. The variety is so extensive that there is bound to be something for everyone, regardless of age, palate, likes or dislikes.

In the same vein, ISCA strives to support the needs of our diverse membership. Besides expanding the range of ISCA CPE courses, the Institute will also be rolling out seminars targeted at different membership segments in 2018. For the under-35 group, preparations are underway to hold a symposium aimed at keeping young professionals informed of trends and developments shaping the future economy and the implications to the profession. Through this, we hope to encourage young accountants to acquire new skills and inculcate an enterprising mindset at work. For public accountants, technology would continue to be the mainstay as we continue to encourage the use of technology as an enabler to transform practice firms. Last but not least, for members in business, we will be emphasising the importance of business partnering. We will urge this group of members to be innovative in their work and strive to become strategic business advisors in their organisations.

As the saying goes, the young is our future. It is thus important for ISCA to further deepen its engagement with young professionals. Going forward, we will provide platforms for young accountants to strengthen and expand their professional network, learn and share with peers from across industries and broaden their perspectives, and put their minds together to discuss trends and challenges, and expand their knowledge.

In line with Singapore’s move towards a skills-based economy, the Institute will be launching the ISCA small and medium-sized practices (SMPs) learning roadmap in January 2018. The roadmap is a guide for auditors working in SMPs to use as a reference for their career development. Following this, the learning roadmap for accountants in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will also be developed. These learning roadmaps will map out the recommended skills at each level and the available learning opportunities. They are designed to enable members to take charge of their career development.

Innovation Creates New Opportunities

Dim sum today is vastly different from what I had as a young man. In the early days, siu mai was old-school style, with minced pork filling and wanton skin wrapped tightly around it. Some versions of siu mai today are more exotic, featuring crab and shark’s fin filling, caviar and abalone toppings! This came about as chefs discovered new ingredients and innovated the traditional dim sum. This led to new dim sum creations which cater to more contemporary and adventurous tastebuds. In turn, it has helped to preserve and revitalise the traditional Cantonese cuisine.

Likewise, the accountancy profession should be innovative in its services offerings for businesses and stretch itself beyond just accounting and financial reporting. It should branch out into new high growth practice areas where the skill sets of accountants would be an asset. The Working Group on Legal and Accounting Services under the CFE has identified nine high growth areas which can help drive demand for Singapore’s legal and accounting services. The future economy will give rise to expanded career options for accountants. Chartered accountants are starting from a position of strength as their rigorous professional training has provided them with a strong foundation to develop new skills to enter various specialisation fields. ISCA has been developing specialisation pathways to facilitate chartered accountants to transit into high growth practice areas.

Financial Forensic Accounting Qualification

At the inaugural ISCA Financial Forensic Conference on 28 September 2017, the Institute launched the ISCA Financial Forensic Accounting Qualification, or ISCA FFA Qualification in short. This is the first financial forensic accounting qualification offered by a professional body in Southeast Asia. The ISCA FFA Qualificationand conferment of the Financial Forensic Professional (FFP) credential will commence in March 2018, and I welcome existing and aspiring financial forensic professionals to further their professional development with ISCA.

Business Analytics

According to a survey of Chief Information Officers (CIO) and technology leaders by recruitment consulting firm Harvey Nash and business consulting firm KPMG, 51% of the respondents in Asia Pacific indicated that big data/analytics remained the most in-demand skill, followed by business analysis at 37%. The high demand for data analytics skills has prompted ISCA to collaborate with Singapore University of Social Sciences to jointly launch the Business Analytics certification programme in the first quarter of 2018, to equip professional accountants with the relevant IT skills.

Project Financing

With ASEAN countries looking to develop their infrastructure, projects and infrastructure has been identified as a high growth area. Project financing knowledge is in great demand in the region and ISCA is currently exploring with a Big Four firm to develop a specialisation pathway in this area.

Helping Companies in Sustainability Reporting

With the Singapore Exchange mandating the issuance of sustainability reports for listed companies for financial year ending on or after 31 December 2017, companies would need to integrate innovative solutions that enhance business sustainability into their operations, thus meeting investors’ demands and customer expectation.

Similarly, ISCA is also innovating to support members in their sustainability reporting (SR) journey. To promote thinking and discussion around SR, and to help new or early-stage SR adopters kick-start their journey, ISCA launched the SR Implementation Roadmap in September 2017. The roadmap seeks to provide practical guidance on the SR implementation process as well as key considerations for the company’s first sustainability report.

ISCA recognises the pivotal role of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in spearheading quality SR. In addition to the “Sustainability Roundtable Report – CFOs for Sustainability Reporting” issued in September 2017, ISCA will continue the discussions among CFOs via the SR Mentorship platform whereby experienced/mature SR reporters will share their insights and experience with early-stage SR adopters.

As we continue with the SR journey, assurance is one key element which enhances businesses’ sustainability efforts and practices. To promote high quality assurance services on SR, ISCA will be working together with subject matter experts to develop an SR assurance framework. This will establish a level playing field for SR assurance services.

Cybersecurity

Increasingly, technology is one of the key drivers in redefining the world we live, work and play in. With this, cybersecurity risks are becoming increasingly prevalent and can pose immense challenges to organisations. Financial statement auditors cannot ignore such risks which can impact the company’s financial statements and company’s assets to a material extent. The Institute is developing a guidance to create awareness of the role of financial statement auditors in cybersecurity, and to explain how these threats can impact financial reporting and the audit procedures.

Closing Remarks

Dim sum in Mandarin is 点心. Taking the words apart, 点 means “to touch lightly” and 心means “heart”. Every piece of dim sum is meant to “lightly touch your heart”.

I probably have worked up your appetite for what ISCA has in store for you in 2018. Over the years, the Institute has wholeheartedly dedicated itself to supporting members’ needs and delivering membership value. Like dim sum, each initiative is prepared with dedication and passion by the Institute. I hope that the Institute’s efforts in transforming itself into a globally recognised professional accountancy body and bringing value to members have “lightly touched your heart”.

It has been my pleasure to share with you my thoughts on what lies ahead for the accountancy profession.

Gerard Ee is President, ISCA.

This article was originally published by the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants in January 2018. You can read the article here.