A Nation of CFOs: Singapore's Grand Plan Comes to Life

These are heady times for accountants and other finance professionals in Singapore. On 1 April, the Singapore Accountancy Commission (SAC), a statutory body under the Ministry of Finance, was formally established. 
Two months later, in June, the Singapore Qualification Programme will be launched. Candidates who successfully pass the QP exams in December will be conferred with the new Chartered Accountant of Singapore designation.
The national accountancy body, known as the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore (ICPAS), is among those at the centre of the excitement. So far, it is the only entity that has been designated as registrant of chartered accountants in Singapore, including the new Chartered Accountant of Singapore qualification.
CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani recently spoke with Genevieve Chua, ICPAS Council Member and Managing Director of Spicers Paper, and Yee Cheok Hong, ICPAS Executive Director, Policy & Strategic Planning. Excerpts:        
It seems Singapore is coming closer to its objective of becoming a global accountancy hub for Asia Pacific by 2020. How is ICPAS evolving as the national accountancy body to respond to this challenge?
Genevieve Chua: I think everybody evolves. Being the national accountancy body, we have a very important role in developing our members. We’re supporting CDAS [Committee to Develop the Accountancy Sector] and its focus on developing Singapore as a major accountancy hub by 2020. We are aligning ourselves to their objectives.
As a society, we fulfill the [social and networking] needs of our members. As a professional body, [we help improve] their professional development skills. We also have to ensure that we develop this talent pool in line with the strategic thrust of CDAS [and the Singapore Accountancy Commission].
I think we’re very well placed. We’ve got the people; we’ve got ourselves who can provide the relevant professional development courses; we can identify the core competencies as well as the [emerging] trends.
What may those emerging trends be, particularly for CFOs? I know ICPAS conducted a survey of its 25,000 members last year to find out what their needs are going forward.  
Genevieve Chua: Approximately 50% of our members are CFOs, CFO aspirants or CFO potentials. They said that being a strategic partner to the CEO was a very important [performance objective] . . . Whether they remain a finance manager or a financial controller, they believe it is important for them to have the skill sets to provide the relevant expertise [in being a strategic partner]. 
Among the skill sets they identified as important are leadership skills, leadership, communications, analytical skills, decision-making skills . . .
Is ICPAS developing new programmes and other initiatives to respond to these expressed needs?
Yee Cheok Hong: We have various courses, precisely, so as to serve our members; we have a suite of initiatives to help them develop. In the case of CFOs, we have our continuing professional education – CPE – programme. We also have [seminars and talks around] risk management, communication skills, negotiation skills.
We started the monthly ICPAS Breakfast Talk Series last October, and we also have the ICPAS CFO Seminar Series and the ICPAS CFO Forum . . . We have programmes with the City University of New York and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. We have different programmes tailored for different schedules.
Are these non-technical skills, this C-level expertise, part of the examinations that will qualify someone to become a CPA in Singapore?
Genevieve Chua: No, they’re not. Some of these skills are probably not so ‘examinable’; you can’t really certify [that the candidate possesses them] based on a piece of paper or even an interview; it’s really how you perform on the job.
In fact, is there a case to be made that the CFO does not need to be an accountant at all? The chief accountant and those with financial reporting and compliance responsibilities should be, but the finance leaders do not necessarily need to be CPAs because they are more focused on strategy, analytics, business partnership and so on.
Genevieve Chua: To be a really good strategic partner, you still need to know the financials, because that plays a very important part. I think the finance person is very well placed to be in this role.
There’s also this increasing emphasis on corporate governance, with all the scandals that have happened in recent times . . . We emphasize ethics and integrity; these are the cornerstones of being a good professional finance person.
From the survey, technical skills still play a very important role. These are the givens; these are the must-haves . . . I think with that finance background, it really does help in terms of helping the CEO steer the company with business direction and it’s very critical.
And you yourself, Genevieve, you are a CPA who’s moved on to become managing director of a sizeable enterprise.
Genevieve Chua: I’m a CPA. I started out with KPMG and then I went on to become a chief accountant. I’ve been with this firm [paper merchant Spicers Paper (Singapore), part of the Australia-listed PaperlinX group] for 23 years. Then I became the CFO and now the MD.
The [ICPAS] courses were helpful to help you develop. But there’s nothing like on-the-job training and having to make decisions, having to lead a team.
Especially if you are talking about SMEs, you tend to have to cover a wide spectrum of duties. In that respect, the financial background that I had was extremely important in my morphing into this role of MD. It has given me not [just an understanding] of corporate governance, but also of risk management and controls.
Is this what accountants want to be, though? The traditional view of accountants is that they are numbers people who just want to be in the office, who are happy crunching numbers in their cubicle and not so happy interacting with other parts of the business.
Genevieve Chua: I think increasingly you can see, even from the results of the survey, that people are adopting a different attitude. Even my own finance managers, they totally enjoy it when they get involved with all the commercial decisions.
When my FC has to analyze something, he uses his financial skills. In dealing with the marketing people, it’s a different skill set trying to get your point across; dealing with customer service – I think he totally enjoys it.
I think people are generally more open to change. It’s going to come anyway. It’s quite evident in the results of the survey.
Especially given Singapore’s ambition to become a global accountancy hub for Asia. Does the establishment of the Singapore Accountancy Commission, a statutory body, mean the arrival of another regulatory layer?
Yee Cheok Hong: I won’t say a layer of regulation. They’re supposed to be a larger oversight body to help promote and develop the accountancy sector in Singapore. They have not come into full play yet. But their role is to help promote and develop the accounting sector, at least from a local development perspective.
There’s a lot of existing and emerging accountancy entities in Singapore, aside from ICPAS as the national accounting body. There are other bodies that confer professional qualifications such as ACCA, CIMA and ICAEW. Now you’re going to have the new Chartered Accountant in Singapore designation.
Yee Cheok Hong: There’s a diverse spectrum of CFOs and professional accountants in business. Some of them are our members, and some of them aren’t. I think we have all roles to play. I think it’s important to collaborate and coordinate.
Genevieve Chua: That’s what we would want to do, the collaboration. It is all again in line with the vision of developing this diverse pool of talents and make Singapore an accountancy hub, to be able to export our financial services from here and also to be able to have our finance professionals go out and work as finance professionals [elsewhere in Asia].
Will it work the other way, where finance professionals from outside Singapore will be coming over?
Genevieve Chua: We’re 5.2 million people, but we still need good talent. We would also expect the relevant people to come here. So it will work both ways. You need global perspective. You need people with that kind of [regional and international] vision.
Would these foreign finance professionals need to be ICPAS members?
Yee Cheok Hong: Actually in Singapore, we have quite an open regime. For example, other than practicing accountants who need to be licensed, there is no requirement for the rest. For example, a Filipino accounting graduate can come to Singapore and [become] a CFO; you don’t even have to become an ICPAS member.

Genevieve Chua: It would help to be a member of ICPAS, of course. We have the largest pool, not just of practitioners but also professional accountants in business. So if you’re talking about networking, ICPAS is a nice opportunity to network with the relevant people.  


Photo credit: Shutterstock


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