The technology bandwagon is moving fast and now is the time for accounting and finance professionals to get onboard

Singapore Accountancy Commission chairman Chaly Mah FCPA. Photographer: Weave

Disruptive technologies are coming and accounting and finance professionals need to jump on board says Singapore Accountancy Commission chairman Chaly Mah FCPA.

Accounting and finance professionals have a bright future as the latest disruptive technologies transform traditional audit and accounting roles, says Chaly Mah FCPA, who chairs the Singapore Accountancy Commission (SAC), a government agency created in 2013 to promote the growth and development of Singapore’s accountancy sector.

However, Mah’s statement comes with a caveat: the accounting profession must learn quickly from accountants in industry and get on the technology bandwagon fast to secure a place for itself in the digital era.

Mah, who became SAC chairman in 2016, believes the profession is ripe for more disruption, having successfully survived several crises, including the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009.

“Every time there is a crisis, the spotlight unfortunately seems to fall on accountants and new rules get written up,” he says. “But throughout, the accounting profession as a whole has held up quite well and been able to change and deal with some of the new regulations, and continues to do very well.”

Mah is no stranger to rapidly evolving trends, having worked at Deloitte for 38 years until his retirement in 2016. He was Deloitte Southeast Asia CEO from 2006 to 2016, after spending four years as country managing partner of Deloitte Singapore, where he was chairman from 2010 to 2016.

During his career, Mah concurrently served in leadership positions with other Deloitte global entities. He was Deloitte Asia Pacific CEO and a member of the global executive for eight years until 2015. He also sat on the Deloitte global board and served as its vice-chairman. 

Outside Deloitte, Mah has contributed extensively to the accounting profession as CPA Australia’s Singapore divisional president from 2008 to 2010.

The tech future of accounting 

Mah says the future of accountancy is in emerging technologies such as data analytics, blockchain, cloud computing, robotics process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“There is a lot of fear about the meaning of analytics and the easy answer for many people is, ‘Oh, I’m a trained accountant, not a data scientist, so don’t talk about it – I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, it’s too complicated’,” he says.

This could cost accountants an opportunity to provide a valuable and potentially lucrative business advisory service, he warns. 

“Basically, anyone who understands your business and understands what you need to run your business will be able to say, ‘I want an analytic routine that helps me dissect the customer so I can come out with a dashboard that helps my management team make better and more timely business decisions, and helps me as a finance professional know where my problems are’.”

Analytics will also change the face of audit through the ability to run continuously in the background to identify audit-related items such as unusual control and transaction issues, Mah adds.

“The profession then becomes exciting for young people, because you get to investigate when there are problems. Every time something happens, you get an alert on your mobile device and you can take a closer look at things in real time.”

Chaly Mah FCPA

Audit analytics

Going a step further, analytics can offer predictive capabilities to help auditors anticipate what could go wrong in organisations. 

“That’s where auditors can truly add value and that’s where I would like to see the audit profession going,” Mah says. In his view, the audit profession could emulate accountants in industry.

He says accountants in business have been able to move faster in the technology space because they are not constrained by regulations, unlike their practising counterparts. 

However, professional accountants, regulators and standards setters must also change their mindsets and move with global trends.

“Today, the way auditing standards are written is still a look back at historical data because of liability issues,” Mah says. “The audit reports are pretty standard – the less you say, the better [off] you are, because if you say something that somebody doesn’t like, you [face] litigation.

“Reforms need to come, with some liability cap for the profession to say, ‘OK, now I’m going to do a little bit more because ... the risk of saying more is commensurate with the return [from] doing things differently’.”

This is where international professional bodies can positively influence global standards setters to progress reforms, he maintains.

Good prospects

Mah sees big developments in two key areas: business valuation, and services related to Singapore’s vision to become an infrastructure hub for Asia. He says business valuation is a skill all finance professionals will need, especially CFOs.

“As a CFO today, you look at divestment and acquisition. You need to understand valuation – at least the basics of it – and how to fairly value your investment. If you don’t understand valuation methodologies, you just cannot function well as a CFO.”

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Professionals such as accountants and lawyers, Mah believes, will function well in Singapore’s development, as professional services are needed to support infrastructure activities and create high value jobs that could tap the trend towards automation.

“It is exciting because you are bringing in a whole group of professionals into Singapore that look at infrastructure projects, perhaps not just in Singapore but also in the region, to be ‘hubbed’ here.”

He says this will develop new professional skill sets that machines cannot – at least currently – replicate. 

Big and small

Mah says the Big Four – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – need to lead the industry in these areas and that they are already making significant investments in disruptive technologies such as AI and RPA to transform work processes and capabilities.

The priority for a changing profession is ensuring that small and medium-sized accounting practices can keep up by riding on the coat-tails of larger firms. Mah says smaller players cannot resist investing in the technology they will need to expand and counter their relative weakness in attracting and retaining talent.

“My counsel to smaller and the medium-sized firms is that you have to really embrace technology. If it means paying X dollars in licence fees for technology platforms on an annual basis for all your staff while only half of them use the software, then so be it because you will find the productivity gains significant and it also helps you to attract and retain staff.

“As a CFO today, you look at divestment and acquisition. You need to understand valuation – at least the basics of it – and how to fairly value your investment. If you don’t understand valuation methodologies, you just cannot function well as a CFO.”

“Nowadays, nobody is going to work for an organisation where they are not learning, and they are not using technology.”

As a policymaker and a government agency, SAC is providing seed funding for smaller firms to adopt technology. Mah believes, however, that this should always be a co-pay model, with the government providing some help but firms also investing for their own growth and future.

“You always need to help yourself,” he insists.

Future skills

The profession also needs to narrow the gap with the private sector on future-ready professional skills, he continues.

“The skills of the future for accountants must at least be an understanding of coding, knowledge of IT and how data is organised, in addition to core accounting, business and finance knowledge and an international mindset.”

Mah acknowledges there is probably some mismatch in skills in the accountancy sector against developments in disruptive technology. However, SAC aims to manage this and has worked with the accounting industry to produce a roadmap, officially called the Skills Framework for the Accountancy Sector.

The framework covers seven industry verticals, from external and internal audit to CFOs, financial accountants, management accountants, tax professionals and business valuers. It has an extensive listing of skill sets that professionals could acquire to move up the value chain in their segment of the industry. For example, professionals who want to build on existing knowledge have learning opportunities in areas such as infrastructure, debt restructuring and dispute resolution.

Waves of disruption

Mah’s vision is for SAC to help Singapore’s accountancy sector ride the waves of disruption. Indeed, it is already raising standards in the sector by supporting a bespoke Singapore chartered accountant qualification exam and a chartered valuer and appraiser program. It is also driving collaboration in an ecosystem of government agencies, accounting firms and professional bodies, and working with the Singapore national accounting professional body to advance the industry.

Mah believes international professional bodies can contribute to SAC’s vision to develop Singapore as an accountancy research centre and leverage their knowledge to influence global policies. 

“The international accountancy bodies have strong research capabilities and have produced good thought leadership that could support the goal to turn Singapore into a global accountancy hub,” he says.

If Mah is right – and he almost certainly is – accounting professionals definitely have plenty of excitement ahead.

Melvin Yong is country head – Singapore

Read next: Soft skills or technical skills? How accountants stay relevant in a changing world.

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