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Singapore: accountancy’s capital city

Economic pressures and automation are making thousands of blue-collar workers in Singapore redundant. Could retraining as accountants be the answer?

In 2008, Singapore’s government decided to take decisive action to build a more stable economic backbone for the island nation. Indeed, as a developed economy in the heart of Asia, Singapore has a position that makes it vulnerable to negative global financial trends, but also gives it unique abilities to combat the consequences.

A slump in regional trade and a slowdown in China have hurt many Asian economies – Singapore particularly. For the government, part of the solution is accountancy. The Committee to Develop the Accountancy Sector was set up to transform Singapore into a leading international accountancy hub for the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Chaired by Bobby Chin, former managing partner at KPMG Singapore, the committee brought together business leaders, accountants, politicians and academics.

Industry experts believe the early groundwork has started to deliver results. The city state’s thriving accountancy sector employs 55,000 people and has been recognised as integral to Singapore’s economic blueprint, becoming the focus of a major government initiative to upskill displaced blue-collar workers. Some of the island’s biggest industries, including shipbuilding and electronics, face a downturn. Employees are being laid off in both sectors because of the economic slump and increasing automation. The government sees accountancy as a potential route for these people.

“Singapore is encouraging firms to set up their regional headquarters or treasury centres here. That has an impact: increased demand for qualified professionals, including accountants,” says Udit Gambhir, managing director of the Singapore branch of Cim Global Business, a corporate service provider. In tandem with this, the government-backed SkillsFuture programme is offering a range of courses in auditing, tax and management to boost the accounting sector. AAT will make its own contribution to education and training in Singapore later this year, working alongside the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA).

AAT in Asia

The ISCA-AAT qualification is a flexible skills-based programme for accounting technicians, designed to meet the demands of the workplace. Those who qualify will receive the Accredited Accounting Technician (Singapore) designation and qualify for ISCA affiliate membership, subject to meeting the practical-experience requirements.

“Our role is to develop the profession, chiefly in terms of broadening the talent pool, by providing pathways and access into the profession at different junctures,” says Lee Fook Chiew, ISCA CEO. “So, among other things, there is collaboration with AAT in the UK to find a pathway for talent not from the accounting profession, and hopefully from there they can upgrade.”

Challenges remain, including attracting the blue-collar workers who have faced the brunt of job cuts. But Lee says they will show interest, as the changes to traditional job markets are irreversible: “People in the manufacturing sector may be displaced because of technological disruptions. If they are willing to take it, we will provide the pathway to enter the profession of accountancy.” The strong demand for accountants in Singapore is underpinned by several factors, argues Lee. First and foremost, economic growth in Asia remains resilient, especially in countries such as Vietnam and China. “Although it is slower than in previous years, it’s still approximately 7%,” he says.

In this market, Singapore makes sense as a business hub. Many growing economies in Asia are very much in the early stages of development. Facing a shortage of professional talent, they look to Singapore to provide it. Singapore can also offer a broader range of accountancy professionals to meet the growing global demand for more complex roles, such as risk business management, and treasury and cash management, Lee says.

And the government’s emphasis on both entry-level and mid-career training to improve technical knowledge and management skills has benefited firms, as well as displaced workers. “We have used some government funding to increase our productivity,” says Helmi Talib, managing partner of Singapore-based Helmi Talib & Co, an accountancy firm with 50 employees.

The government and accounting bodies are looking for avenues to bring more know-how into the profession, he says: “We can see that happening when we recruit people. There are people who aren’t necessarily accounting graduates who want to start careers in accounting.” This is aligned to AAT’s work in Singapore and with SkillsFuture.

“The partnership with ISCA provides practical finance skills for those starting their accountancy career, as well as those formalising their experience with professional training. It helps to empower and upskill people and expand the pathways for entry into accountancy here,” says Laurie Gillow, International Consultancy Manager at AAT. Talib believes there is plenty of room for optimism in Singapore’s accounting industry. “The demand for accountants has grown handsomely over the past ten years. There’s a lot of work in the region, where expertise is not widely available, that is funnelled to Singapore.”

This piece was first published in Accounting Technician magazine. AAT members can login to the archive to read more of the March/April issue.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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