NO LONGER BUSINESS AS USUAL
When asked what a normal day at work is like for him, Cheung Pui Yuen, FCA (Singapore) gives a chuckle and says, “Meetings, and more meetings.” This doesn’t sound terribly exciting at first, until one considers the extraordinary economic climate businesses operate under nowadays. For one, global uncertainties loom, stemming not least of all from the ongoing US-China trade war which shows no sign of abating. Political upheavals such as Brexit and the protests in Hong Kong throw another spanner in the works.
These factors, along with technological innovation upending the way businesses are run, mean that no two client engagements are ever the same. As the Chief Executive Officer of Deloitte Singapore since January 2019, Mr Cheung, 54, spends a large part of his time helping clients and internal teams resolve pressing issues while ensuring compliance with increasingly stringent and complex regulatory requirements.
Prior to this, Mr Cheung served as Audit & Assurance Leader in 2007, before taking on the role of Audit & Assurance Regional Managing Partner, Deloitte Southeast Asia in 2011. He has advised companies in their Initial Public Offerings on the Singapore Exchange (SGX), and conducted seminars on various audit-related issues within Deloitte & Touche LLP and for ISCA.
But besides driving performance and operational excellence, Mr Cheung is adamant about building the right culture in the firm. One of the most important attributes he wants to instil in the organisation is the willingness and ability to listen. “It’s so important for leaders to set the tone by staying as close to the ground as possible and actively engaging with those we work with, from our own staff to our clients, partners and suppliers.” Without this stance, even industry practitioners can become isolated and irrelevant to their stakeholders.
GATEKEEPERS OF GOVERNANCE
Upon graduating from the National University of Singapore in 1989, Mr Cheung was hired as an auditor at Touche Ross & Co. Shortly after he joined, the firm merged with Deloitte and he found himself seconded to Deloitte Melbourne. The assignment afforded him the opportunity to work on large audit engagements very early on. Concurrently, it provided him with a glimpse of the accountancy profession in a more established market, as well as a work culture that placed strong emphasis on research and client engagements – an experience that has contributed to his leadership approach.
With almost 30 years of public accounting experience under his belt, Mr Cheung also serves as the Deputy Chairman of the Accounting Standards Council, which is responsible for influencing the setting of standards by the International Accounting Standards Board. “Financial reporting standards play a very important part in influencing the financial results of both listed and non-listed companies,” says Mr Cheung.
But with increasing focus on the long standing “expectation gap” in the audit sector – especially in view of well-publicised corporate scandals the likes of Enron Corporation, Bernie Madoff, and closer to home, 1MDB – it would be no exaggeration to say that leaders of Big Four firms such as Mr Cheung have their work cut out for them.
The overall audit expectation gap is defined as the difference between what the public expects from the auditors and what the audit professionals can actually provide. Users of financial statements, such as shareholders, potential investors and creditors, expect auditors to safeguard the quality and integrity of financial reporting, and that audited financial statements are accurate and error free, so that they can accurately assess the viability and solvency of a business. In reality, auditors can only provide reasonable assurance.
As corporate gatekeepers, public accountants must continually exercise ethical judgement and ever evolving professional skills, but absolute assurance is not possible, highlights Mr Cheung. “Businesses are very complex, whereas audit exercises are conducted on a sampling basis. Just as you cannot depend solely on the police force to ensure public safety, you cannot depend solely on auditors to prevent misgovernance and fraud. It takes the whole ecosystem – from the management to independent directors, both internal and external auditors as well as the regulators – to improve reporting processes and governance.”
It is therefore a very good sign that accounting standards have, over the years, evolved closer to fair value accounting, observes Mr Cheung. “The move toward fair value reporting, greater disclosure in terms of risk and quality of earnings, will allow investors to have a better understanding of company performance in the future. In the past, investors can only tell how a company has performed but there is little indication of how it will perform in future,” he explains.
“In addition to the continuing professional education courses offered, ISCA has done really well in bringing accountants together to network with fellow Chartered Accountants.”
With unprecedented uncertainty and volatility given the tech-enabled interconnectivity of the global marketplace nowadays, accountancy is no longer the paper-pushing, bean-counting job many still think it is. On the contrary, it is a dynamic and challenging profession demanding the sharpest of minds. At the same time, accountancy gives one a rare window into all aspects of a business and its operations and enables the professional to help organisational leaders make informed financial decisions.
So, what makes for an excellent accountant? “He is one who is able to simplify complex ideas and concepts into simple ones that people can understand,” shares Mr Cheung. People tend to do the reverse – making the simple complex – “when they don’t have the depth of knowledge to really understand things at the core and know why something is done or why it exists”. Secondly, he must be able to anticipate and manage change; this quality of foresight is a vital attribute in a professional accountant. At the core, the Chartered Accountant qualification is not just about bookkeeping but financial analysis.
“Yes, technology is always improving, but human judgement will never become obsolete,” adds Mr Cheung, who holds master’s degrees from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia and University of Cambridge in the UK. He also stresses that time management is an essential skill. “Know what is required by your boss and clients, and prioritise your time around that, starting from the most important thing.” This goes hand-in-hand with the ability to say “no” at times when it is necessary. Through his observations, many young accountants are hardworking, but because of poor organisational skills and the inability to manage the expectations of others, they get bogged down in a cycle of over-promising and under-delivering.
One of the most important attributes he wants to instil in the organisation is the willingness and ability to listen. “It’s so important for leaders to set the tone by staying as close to the ground as possible and actively engaging with those we work with, from our own staff to our clients, our partners and suppliers.”
Patience is also important in building a strong foundation early on in one’s career. “It takes three years to qualify as a Chartered Accountant. Take the time to gain exposure in different sectors and from various clients. You have to be interested in what’s going on around you as it will have an impact on the advice you give to clients. Accounting standards change because business practices change. At the same time, politics and current affairs influence the kind of policies that will be made; understand how these will affect your clients’ businesses,” he advises. “In addition to the continuing professional education courses offered, ISCA has done really well in bringing accountants together to network with fellow Chartered Accountants,” says Mr Cheung. As the global business community steels itself for change in the months and years ahead, there is perhaps no better time to gather, learn and glean knowledge from each other.