Chua Geok Wah FCPA, Accountant-General of Singapore, is passionate, speaks her mind and would mount a robust argument with anyone who dared suggest accountants are just bean counters.
“We have progressed,” declares the executive in charge of the Singapore Government’s accounting affairs, widely known in industry circles simply as Ms Chua.
Progress has been Chua’s mantra throughout her career as a civil servant and more prominently so since she was appointed Accountant-General in 2000. She oversees a department responsible for delivering a broad spectrum of financial and accounting-related activities to the Singapore public sector. The department also supports the Accountant-General in setting accounting standards for statutory boards and in the statutory role of protecting Singapore’s past reserves.
Chua has long held the view that accountants don’t need to be boring. They can be innovative, they can be strategic. Most importantly, they can capitalise on the latest technology to get their job done faster and more efficiently.
But she does admit the accounting sector can move slowly where automation is concerned. “For example, it can be slow in automating working papers,” Chua says. She also cites the common practice among some accounting firms in getting young associates to perform administrative tasks such as sending out debtor confirmation notes. “The poor associate has to fold the note, insert it into an envelope, stick on a stamp, then send it. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Leave it to her and all transactions would be electronic no cash, no cheques and done in the shortest possible processing time, electronically, of course.
Such passion has been the driving force behind Chua’s motivation to promote standards for government agencies beyond accounting. Since she joined the Accountant-General’s Department (AGD), Chua has been at the forefront of major technology projects designed to eliminate inefficiencies. She has led efforts to “automate everything” in government accounting systems, demonstrating a vision well ahead of her time.
The simple goal is to cut down on the routine accounting activities that require a lot of manpower and increase productivity. “Accounting processes are labour-intensive,” says Chua, a tireless champion of IT, noting that the Singapore Government is prepared to invest in automation to achieve higher productivity and has been at the global forefront of doing so.
During her tenure as Accountant-General, Chua has overseen several key productivity projects. She recently led her team to overhaul the cash management practices of all statutory boards by centralising cash management at the AGD.
The previous structure meant the statutory boards held an unnecessarily large cash float, so there was duplication of labour in cash management and a lack of economies of scale as funds were invested in small pools that failed to maximise returns on investment.
A survey conducted earlier this year showed that by implementing a centralised liquidity management system, savings of 30 per cent in manpower and other efficiency gains had been achieved.
In another project, the AGD transformed the payment system for all government agencies. Manual processing of hard-copy invoices was laborious and inefficient, so the AGD embarked on a pilot project using electronic invoicing with a few key government suppliers.
Electronic invoices ended the risk of hard-copy documents being lost in transit, human error in data entry was reduced and much less manpower for processing payments was needed.
The success of the pilot project led to all government suppliers from that time, including small and medium enterprises (SMEs), being required to submit electronic invoices when billing the government for products and services. All processing is done electronically and payment to suppliers is made through electronic banking.
With the government one of the biggest consumers of private sector services in Singapore, Chua is proud of the direction set by the public sector in influencing the way business is conducted in the country.
Singapore has a different ways of doing things. Chua Geok Wah
“By making it compulsory to transact with the government electronically, suppliers especially the SMEs are encouraged to integrate information technology into their business operations,” she says. “This would provide greater automation and efficiency, thereby further increasing the competitiveness of the companies in the global economy.”
But Chua hopes the idea can be taken a step further for SMEs. Her vision: to have an easy-to-use, standard accounting software that is cheap and efficient, and which can help SMEs keep proper accounting records and aid their mandatory annual tax filings.
Increasing productivity has been a catch-call in Singapore, which has a long-term national goal of growing productivity by 2 to 3 per cent a year to sustain economic growth and raise workers’ incomes. Singapore also wants to grow the accountancy sector from 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product now to 1 per cent by 2020.
On the accounting profession, Chua acknowledges the challenges brought about by evolving accounting standards. Earlier this year the Singapore Government announced that full convergence between Singapore Financial Reporting Standards and International Financial Reporting Standards would be postponed because of global delays in converging standards on elements such as revenue recognition and financial instruments.
Nevertheless, Chua maintains that Singapore standards compare favourably with international ones. “Singapore has different ways of doing things,” she insists. “We have a reserves protection framework that other countries don’t. We do not borrow for spending. This is unique and has helped to shield us from some of the more common problems that plague other countries during crises.”
She says there is no shortage of countries keen to study the Singapore model. The AGD, for one, has shared its IT experience with the governments of Malaysia, Brunei, The Philippines, Laos, China, Mongolia, Botswana, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia, India and Sri Lanka.
Chua says accountants remain relevant in the new world economy.
“Whether in good times or bad, accountants are always needed. Having a good accountant will help companies see strategic issues.”
Chua is a strong advocate that the accounting profession in Singapore needs to attract and retain good talent in an age where there are fewer concerns about the relevance of accountants.
Getting the job done well depends on getting the right people with the right skills sets. Yet attracting and retaining good people is tough, Chua concedes, and suggests a new strategy is needed.
“You can’t train Gen Y using the processes of the past,” she says. “Long working hours are not the answer. Industry has to recognise this. Gen Y seeks more work life balance.”
So what’s the solution? “IT helps. Reorganise work practices. For example, in scrutinising financial accounts, download all the transactions and use software to analyse them. Human judgement is still needed where it matters, not in mundane auditing tasks. Client records should be automated for auditing. With talent, keep the good people in the profession. Give flexibility to Gen Y. They like options.”
For AGD, Chua admits that attracting talent has been challenging at times. Better pay in the financial private sector previously made it more enticing for people to take on those jobs. But after the Singapore Government benchmarked salaries against the market, public sector salaries have become “less of an issue compared with the private sector and very competitive”, Chua says.
As Singapore seeks to transform itself into an accountancy hub that offers a wide suite of professional accountancy services, a lot of emphasis has been placed on training those at the apex of financial functions the chief financial officers.
Like many other markets, the role of CFO is now more challenging, more diverse and covers many business functions. They are often employed as strategic business advisers to the CEOs.
Chua says more can be done to build up a strong pool of good CFOs. “They have to be strategic. They need to have the ability to execute. And they must have detailed and sharp analytical skills,” she says.
“The challenge is whether you can find all those skills sets in one person. If you have good people, then you need to allow them to accumulate the right skills with time and experience.” It’s all about the capability to see the breadth of issues that affect companies, as well as a helicopter view up and down the value chain.
For Chua, accountants have come a long way from merely balancing the books.
But progress is always good and desirable. With innovation and good judgement, that might well be a good start for those making their way through the ranks of the accounting profession. These are, after all, uncertain times and not quite business as usual.
The arrival of VFM
Accountants do more than pore over balance sheets these days and their function continues to evolve within the Accountant-General’s Department (AGD), Chua Geok Wah says.
Previously some Singapore Government ministries didn’t have an internal audit department, nor was audit part of the AGD, but that has changed.
“AGD takes on the internal audit of several government agencies,” Chua says. “It doesn’t focus on micro non-compliance issues, instead looking more at potentially systemic issues. This has started a review of government processes, which has made the job more interesting for [public sector] accountants.”
AGD also staffs the audit departments of government ministries. Its so-called “value for money” (VFM) reviews at the whole-of-government level aim to get the best deal for government services and programs.
“It means asking intelligent questions about the outcomes and policy objectives in a VFM way,” Chua says.
“As an auditor, you are not a welcome person. But if your auditees agree with you on the right policy questions being teased out, then you have arrived.”
Melvin Yong is general manager Singapore, CPA Australia.