Should You Be a Chartered Accountant of Singapore?

Suddenly, magically, on 2 July this year, 18,000 Certified Public Accountants in Singapore were transformed into Chartered Accountants of Singapore. That was when the new accountancy designation, which allows finance professionals to practice as public accountants in Singapore, replaced the previous CPA Singapore title.
All 18,000 members of the Institute of the Certified Public Accountants of Singapore (ICPAS), now known as ISCA (Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants), automatically became CAs of Singapore.
But because the designation is so new and the recently established Singapore Qualification Programme has yet to turn out its first graduates, no other professional body recognizes the new designation. “We hope that we will get recognition as we progress along,” said Uantchern Loh, Chief Executive of the new statutory body Singapore Accountancy Commission (SAC).
Loh was at the 4th Annual CFO Innovation Forum in Singapore in June, where he took questions from CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani and some of more than 270 CFOs across Asia who attended the conference. Edited excerpts of the final part of this two-part executive interview:
Will the new designation Chartered Accountant of Singapore be recognized by accounting bodies globally?
No, nobody recognizes it officially. But we have signed memoranda of understanding with ICAEW, we signed with CPA Australia, with ACCA. We have spoken to the Indian Chartered Accountants, we spoke to NZCA. We hope that we will get recognition as we progress along.
Singapore QP is not just a name. The things that come with it like learning materials [including] textbooks, these are still being developed and will only be issued in August. The workshops don’t start until September. The first exam doesn’t start until 2nd and 3rd of December, and these are only for two modules, which is Financial Reporting and Insurance.
We will have [an exam on] tax next June; we still have business value and governance and risk next June. We still have the capstone module next December. We still have membership in ISCA [for those that complete the courses and pass the exams].
All these things are important parts of the Singapore QP. Without these things in place, the other bodies like ICAEW can’t properly say they recognize us. When Hong Kong did their first QP in 1999, their first mutual recognition was not signed until five years later. So we would take time to do that. But that’s part of the journey.
So someone who had a CPA Singapore designation under ICPAs and now transitioned to Chartered Accountant of Singapore under ISCA, that person’s title will not be recognized outside of Singapore at the moment?
Technically true . . . But a rose is a rose by any other name. If I go [to London] and say that I’ve got all these years of experience, does that title-recognition mean anything more? It’s important, but I think work experience counts, where you graduated from counts, the companies you work for count. It’s not just a title.
To me, it’s a package. We shouldn’t be too hung up on mutual recognition. It’s important, it’s one of the things that we must do so that we are part of the global fraternity, but it’s not the only thing for recognition.
Would the SAC be looking at the ACCA, CIMA, all these other professional institutes, as bodies that can designate people as a Chartered Accountant of Singapore like the SAC has done with ISCA?
Well, there are changes to the Accountants Act. The [previous] CPA Singapore title [had] full mutual recognition with two professional bodies, ACCA and CPA Australia. This meant that if you are an ACCA title holder, for example, you can become a CPA Singapore by attending a five-day pre-admission course.
We’re looking at all these transitory changes to the Accountants Act so that the recognition for the various professional bodies will be in place.
Would an accountant in the Philippines, in Malaysia, in Indonesia and other countries, will they be eligible to become a Chartered Accountant of Singapore?
Accountancy is color-blind, so irrespective of nationality . . . I was at the SAC Productivity Council meeting that’s chaired by Paul Lee, who is a managing partner at RSM Chio Lim, and one of the things that we want to promote is getting the people from the region to come to Singapore to do the Singapore QP.
Then they go back to their respective home countries and they become Chartered Accountants of Singapore. Good for them, good for us; everybody wins.
Yes, but would that indicate that they know Singapore better; that their qualification is better for Singapore rather than for the Philippines or India or Japan? What is it about the Singapore designation that would make it relevant to jurisdictions outside of Singapore?
The syllabus for the Singapore QP covers international standards so it will be relevant for them.
And the other thing about the Singapore QP to them is what we call the Asia Market Value. So this is where we infuse a lot of Asian practices into the Singapore QP, so that what they learn in the Singapore QP and when they become a chartered accountant will be relevant to them in their own countries.
Things like state-owned enterprises, family-owned businesses, charities, public-sector involvements, these are all things that are unique to Asia, and these are the things that will be infused into the Singapore QP syllabus.
Here’s a question from the audience. How does the term “Chartered Accountant” come about when none of the local bodies have a royal charter?
The chartered accountants of India, New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia are all [chartered] by statute. So they didn’t invite the Queen to sign a charter for them. Similarly, the Singapore CA is by statute.
There is precedent in the marketplace. Some of you may not know this, but Indonesia is also starting a chartered accountant title. We are not alone. India’s chartered accountancy by statute was 1940 something; NZCA is also by statute.
Here’s another question from the floor. Ronald Reagan once said that the most frightening thing one can hear is: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Is Singapore doing too much by creating a statutory body under the Ministry of Finance to develop the accountancy sector?
To be honest, this is my first job in the public sector. I’ve never worked in the public sector before. When my boss, [SAC Chairman] Michael Lim asked me to do this, I said, “Why? Why would you want me to do this very difficult task?” 
There is no equivalent to SAC in the rest of the world; I found that out very quickly. With that, people ask, “So why is SAC doing this? Isn’t that too heavy a hand?” Truth be told, if the market is thriving and doing what it’s supposed to do, I would be out of a job.
When I first took on this job my mandate is to make myself and SAC out of a job. We will do things to promote, to champion, to push along, to nurture, to develop, to implement things that the accountancy sector wants, not what the government wants.
If this is what the accountancy sector wants, but either through lack of resources or lack of time, cannot coordinate, our job here is to sit down and coordinate and get things done. To all the CFOs, internal auditors, risk managers, external auditors, these are all really my bosses.
If you look at all the programs that we are doing, the heavy hand or strong touch of the [accountancy] sector is everywhere. We literally have hundreds of people in our councils and committees and we stand directed by them.
If you look at the Singapore CFO Institute, that’s chaired by [Singapore Exchange CFO] Chng Lay Chew. On the councils, we have a whole host of them [CFOs] – Keppel, Phillips, ComfortDelGro, Starhub –  and these are the people who tell us what to do. We listen very closely to them and all the programs we developed are directed strategically by these advisory councils.
Tell us more about these advisory councils.
We have five advisory councils. One of them is the Singapore CFO Institute Advisory Council, [which advises on the mission and operations of the] Singapore CFO Institute. We also have a Centre of Excellence Advisory Council that looks at things like internal audit, risk management, business evaluation, international tax. And we have an advisory council, of course, for the Singapore QP [Qualification Programme, whose graduates are eligible to register as Chartered Accountants of Singapore].
We recently formed two more advisory councils. One of them is on productivity [Productivity Advisory Council], which is a huge thing [in Singapore]. If you look at the National Productivity Council, the accountancy sector is one of the last three sectors out of 16 to be included in the government’s drive to improve productivity.
Finally we have a research council that we’ve established [Accountancy Sector Research Centre Advisory Council] and it’s headed by Prof. Gillian Yeo of Nanyang Technological University. We’ve got all the practitioners and academics on this research advisory council.
The end goal being to make Singapore a global accountancy hub?
People ask me, “What do you mean by global accountancy hub?” To me, one of the traits of being a global accountancy hub is where we must have thought leadership; it is when we must say things which will be inspiring; we must do research in areas which result in common good for the rest of the world.
So this is where we want to work with IFAC [International Federation of Accountants] and the professional bodies around the world. In Singapore, we want to promote thought leadership. So we have, hopefully, created a strong research team in relationship with the rest of the [practical] tracks.
You were talking about how the SAC is actually a two-way conversation with CFOs and others in finance. How would the CFOs communicate with you? Are there any hotlines? Are there any meetings?
Our Singapore CFO Institute has a website and a Facebook page which you can [use to] communicate with us. We have lots and lots of events. We have the CFO Connect lunch . . . and we have the CFO Symposium.
We are currently doing some exciting research on capital-raising – some of have no idea how to raise capital, through bonds, equities, private equity. This is one major research that we are doing this year with NTU [Nanyang Technological University] and a listed company. This research will be featured in November during our symposium.
We’re doing a major research on stakeholder communications. How do CFOs communicate with stakeholders – investors, regulatory bodies, etc? What does it take to have effective communications? So we’re doing this heavy lifting; we’re doing this research for KPMG and CPA Australia.
We’re also doing research on Big Data. Analytics is huge. We’re doing research on IT security; cyber security suddenly became hot again. We are having a workshop in August on Enterprise Risk Management and I’m doing that myself. We don’t have much revenue, unfortunately, so they’re getting me to do these workshops to earn money.
So people will actually have to pay to attend?
Our mandate is cost recovery. We’re not out to make money; CFO events, 50-100 bucks is not a lot. Singapore QP is S$5,100 for three years – Great Singapore Sale! The Ethics module online is S$300. Every technical module is S$900. If you finish the whole thing and you don’t fail, it’s S$5,100 +GST.
Oh, there’s Goods and Services Tax as well.
But it’s a bargain. There’s a lot that goes into it. The learning materials are from BPP and these are the same companies that developed material for ICAEW and for Hong Kong’s CPA program. We’ve spent a lot of resources on the QP. I think it’s value for money.
Commitment and time of course [are needed], but it’s not the destination but really the journey of really going through a professional qualifications program together. Looking at Australia, Hong Kong, the UK, professional programs are not just [about] technical . . . It is a bonding that brings Singaporeans together.
One day, we hope that when we mention, “I’m a Chartered Accountant of Singapore,” people will fall down and say, “Wow, accounting!”
Photo credit: Shutterstock 


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