What Singapore’s New Accountancy Regulator Said

There was much humor and wit when Uantchern Loh, Chief Executive of the new statutory body Singapore Accountancy Commission (SAC), took to the stage at the 4th Annual CFO Innovation Forum in Singapore in June.
 
“I mooted a new designation to call ourselves Singapore Professional Accountants, but SPA wasn’t going to make it,” he quipped, to laughter from more than 270 CFOs across Asia. “Would you like to SPA?” “No, forget it.”
 
Loh was referring to the new Chartered Accountant of Singapore designation that recently replaced the CPA Singapore title held by 18,000 finance professionals who are members of ICPAS, now renamed ISCA. He was interviewed by CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about the new qualification, the new commission's regulatory, promotional and other hats, and its vision for the ideal CFO and other issues. Excerpts:
 
 
Uantchern, walk us briefly through the Singapore Accountancy Commission because I’m not sure everyone actually knows what SAC is and what its objectives are.
The journey for the accountancy sector in Singapore really began back in late 2008 when the Singapore government convened the Committee to Develop the Accountancy Sector, or CDAS for short. [The committee] embarked upon an 18-month study of the accountancy sector and the result of that study was a report that was issued in April of 2010.
 
On 1 April this year, we implemented the first of the ten recommendations in the CDAS report [with the formation of] the Singapore Accountancy Commission, which is a statutory body under the Ministry of Finance. If you read the CDAS report, that was recommendation number 10. So we are working backwards, and we’ve got nine more recommendations to do.
 
One of the nine recommendations would be developing CFOs as a profession in Singapore and another would have to do with creating a new accountancy professional designations. Let me ask you first: What exactly does the SAC want to do with respect to CFOs?
What we are trying to do is to segment [the accountancy sector] areas where we can help. The SAC is a promotional body, even though we have a little bit of regulatory oversight.
 
Our mantra when we go to market is to collaborate. If you look at Recommendation No. 2 of the CDAS report, one of the specific recommendations is to set up a Singapore CFO Institute. That institute is to promote, to celebrate and to champion the role of the CFO.
 
Whether there is going to be a certification program, whether it’s membership [in a] CFO Institute, that’s something we want to hear from the marketplace.
 
If you look at our website for the CFO Institute, there are no membership requirements; anybody is welcome to join the events and activities of the CFO Institute. Our mission for the CFO Institute is to celebrate, champion and promote the role of the CFO, [and] not just in the working world. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I went to [a high school] where I spoke to the kids about what it takes to be a CFO.
 
So what does it take to be a CFO from the point of view of the SAC and the CFO Institute?
If you read Shakespeare, you will know that a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet. So a CFO, whether he or she is a CPA, CA, should still be a CFO.
 
That’s why at the CFO Institute, we created the ideal CFO framework. We spoke to the industry – we have an advisory council – and we said, “What does the ideal CFO look like?” So we put down these ideal CFO characteristics. What we do is we encourage people to adopt that ideal CFO framework.
 
We are not here to push certification, qualification or membership. If something is really good, people will flock to it like bees to honey and you don’t need to force people to be certified.
 
Do you need to be a CPA, for example?
No, we don’t go down to that technical level. Clearly, for example, leadership, being collaborative, these are some of the characteristics of what we call the ideal CFO. Our job at the CFO Institute is really to go out into the marketplace and to promote this ideal CFO framework so it can be embedded in all the programs related to CFOs.
 
For example, the Singapore Management University is starting a Master of Science in CFO Leadership [program] this August. It’s a great program and the CFO Institute has supported that program. We also support other CFO programs like the ICAEW F-TENTM program.
 
What we hope is that they will then adopt the ideal CFO framework as part of their delivery mechanisms. And if the market is doing something, the CFO Institute will not duplicate; instead we will collaborate and we will champion and we will celebrate.
 
Would there be scholarships, grants, tax breaks and other incentives the SAC can do to help CFOs and would-be CFOs attend these programs?
Well, there are tax breaks. The PIC [Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme], for example, under the Ministry of Finance for people who want to undergo training.
 
Let me move on to the new Chartered Accountant of Singapore designation. Why do you need to have this new designation when there are already many qualifications – CPA of Singapore, ACCA, CPA Australia and so on?
As a developed nation, we’re probably the last one off the block in terms of having a professional program . . . There were a lot of stakeholders in formulating the CDAS report, hundreds of people were interviewed, and the final report came out that: “Yes, we need to have this program.”
 
But we all know that the devil is in the implementation. To be honest, we struggled with the name. Should we continue with ‘CPA’? Should we call ourselves Chartered Accountant of Singapore? You know, the Canadians call themselves Chartered Professional Accountants, also called CPA. I mooted a new designation to call ourselves Singapore Professional Accountants, but SPA wasn’t going to make it …
 
We had a transitional panel that was formed and that was headed by Yeoh Oon Jin, chairman of PwC [in Singapore]. On that panel we had CFOs . . . we had representatives from the universities, from industry, from practice.
 
In that transition document – you can download it from the website – there are 18 recommendations on how we deal with this transition from what we have, the CPA Singapore designation to the Chartered Accountant of Singapore designation.
 
A I understand it, if you are a member of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore, you will automatically gain this new designation?
All existing CPA Singapore title holders, about 18,000 of us, myself included, we will all be known as Chartered Accountants of Singapore [on 2 July 2013] . . .  For 18,000 of us, it would cost you nothing to become a Chartered Accountant of Singapore.
 
We did debate [whether] these 18,000 should be made to go through the exams. I saw a lot of [horrified] looks . . . You must be joking.
 
We took cues from other countries. When Hong Kong did their QP [Qualification Program] back in 1999, that’s 14 years ago, they also transitioned from the old to the new. In the past, they had two titles. There were those called CPAs, for those with a practicing license or public accountants; and there were also those who were called Registered Accountants or RAs.
 
In 2004 they transitioned all the RAs into CPAs without having to take the QP. So we took a cue from them and said, “That seems to be alright.”
 
We visited Hong Kong last June and . . . I recently came back from Australia. We also looked at ICAA [Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta], we looked at CPA Australia, we have been in deep talks with ICAEW [Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales].
 
I guess the good thing for Singapore is that we are able to learn from what has been done by everybody. Hopefully our QP program will stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the professional programs around the world.
 
So what happens to those with ACCA designation, for example, who have not joined ICPAS but who might want to become a member. Will they need to sit the new Singapore QP?
There are transition arrangements right now. For example, under Transition Number 8 and 9, if you are ACCA or CIMA or CP Australia title holders, or ICAEW – there are ten of these titles in the Accountants Act in the schedule under Section 3 – you are able to make the transition from now until 2016.
 
So there is a huge window for you to be a CA Singapore without having to take the Singapore QP.
 
Of course, you have to take the five-day pre-admission course with ICPAS, which will be known as the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA).
 
What happens after 2016?
There are a few transitional dates. After 2016, the full QP kicks in. Then, for those who want to be a CA Singapore, you’ll have to then take the full QP.
 
Under Transition Number 11 for accountancy students in Singapore in the four local universities (NUS, NTU, UniSIM and SMU) . . . most of them don’t have to do it [Singapore QP] of they can go through the existing routes to be a CA Singapore up to 2016.
 
This means that this year’s graduates, next year’s graduates, up to 2016’s graduates in accountancy don’t have to do the Singapore QP. They can become a CA Singapore by taking the five-day pre-admissions course [of ISCA, formerly ICPAS]. And for those boys who are doing National Service, they have up to 2018 to go through these existing routes.
 
But guess what. A lot of this year’s graduates [have signed up] for the QP even though they don’t have to do it. KPMG submitted 104 names, PwC 100 names, Deloitte about 50 names. So a lot of them are saying, “Look, it’s something worthwhile, even though it’s not compulsory.” So far, now we’ve got almost 300 people committed to doing the Singapore QP at exam time in December.
 
We’re quite happy – a little bit happy – because, compared to Hong Kong, when they started their QP back in 1999 they had 90 candidates, and we have 300. So we’re doing a little bit better. But Hong Kong now has 3,000 candidates every year, so now we’re behind again.
 
In Australia, they have three semesters a year. Every semester, they have 7,000 candidates. Will we hit 7,000 a semester? Ours is a dual-semester system. I don’t know, but 300 on the first go, I think that is a good encouragement and I really do encourage all of you to look at the Singapore QP, it’s a great program.
 
I think it’s a unifying program, not just for the technical qualification. Many of us who have gone through professional programs like this will appreciate the camaraderie, having to work together, study groups, book shops, complaining about exams, and those kind of bonding money can’t buy. I think that will place us in good stead in Singapore.
 

Click here to read Part 2 of this executive interview.

 

Photo credit: Shutterstock    

 

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