2020 was an unforgettable year for many of us. It was a potent cocktail of issues spanning politics, healthcare, economics and the community. As I look back and ponder on what makes 2020 unforgettable, the words that inevitably come to mind are: circuit breaker, lockdown, work from home, quarantine, safe distancing, anxiety, uncertainty, stress, recession, job losses, retrenchment and bankruptcy. These words have become part of our everyday vocabulary that even school-going children are now well acquainted with many of them. Disruption is the order of the day – it is a stark reality that has beset us.
The highlight of 2020 is undoubtedly the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has red-carded most things. It is not business as usual and the goalposts have shifted. It has drastically altered how we live, work and play. A fashionable or high-tech face mask is now the newest accessory to complement the ubiquitous mobile phone. Going out for a leisurely walk and socialising at gatherings were things I took for granted before the pandemic, and I am thankful that technology has enabled me to catch up with family, friends, colleagues and clients (some of whom I have not met in person for at least eight months!) via online conferencing platforms and social media. It feels really strange “speaking” to an inanimate camera and I think I should have gotten used to it by now, but I haven’t. While working from home may be more flexible, it sometimes feels more like living at work, as some of you have said to me.
Last year, what really resonated with me were the themes of the Budgets, where close to $100 billion were committed by the Singapore government to save lives, help workers and prop up businesses affected by Covid-19. What ISCA strives to deliver to our members amid the pandemic mirrors these themes. Let me share the lineup of some of the new initiatives we have in store for you in 2021.
“… we will face more complex challenges ahead, but we are in this for the long haul. We can succeed only if we work together.” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament, 18 February 2020, delivering the Unity Budget
The Unity Budget conveys a clear message that the government is standing together with workers and companies during the current tough times. It aims to help workers remain employed and support companies in weathering the economic uncertainties caused by Covid-19. In the same vein, the Institute will stand united and walk hand in hand with members and the profession through the difficult journey ahead. We have drawn up a suite of initiatives to support you in tackling the challenges brought about by Covid-19, and I would like to highlight the key ones here.
ISCA has been diligently rolling out specialisation programmes and certifications, CPE courses and e-learning modules in trending or high-growth areas. This was aimed at supporting members to upskill and maintain employability, and even enhance their career prospects as disruptive trends reshaped the accountancy profession. I had previously mentioned that one of the ways to be adaptable, and to be resilient, is to be multi-skilled. These attributes are required to thrive in the new normal. Given a choice between two accountants where one has broader skill sets, it is obvious who will get hired. To date, we have curated an extensive library of courses and programmes in areas such as digital finance, business analytics, financial forensics, project finance and infrastructure, coding, cybersecurity and financial modelling.
The pandemic has brought forth unprecedented challenges and opportunities for accountants who are on the frontlines helping to save businesses. Hence, the need for accountants to continuously upskill to stay ready to offer strategic assistance and advice to businesses has become more critical than ever. As ISCA continues to build on our portfolio of forward-looking professional development offerings for members in 2021, we will be rolling out the following:
i) Information Systems Risk Management Certificate
In August 2020, the Institute had launched the first track of the ISCA Compliance Certificate – ISCA Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) Compliance Certificate. The PDPA Compliance Certificate targets finance/accountancy and non-finance professionals who are undertaking data protection roles in their organisation. In 2021, the second track of the ISCA Compliance Certificate – Information Systems Risk Management (ISRM) Certificate will be launched. It will be available to those who would like to gain an appreciation of information systems security, risks and controls, and progress towards the ISACA CRISC (Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control) Certification.
ii) Digital finance-themed courses
The digital transformation agenda has become a top priority for businesses that want to survive and stay ahead of their game. Finance leaders and finance teams need to embrace technology and embark on a finance transformation now as they have a critical role to play in positioning their organisations for recovery and growth when the pandemic ends. ISCA will continue to expand our library of digital finance courses relevant to the accountancy profession, in areas such as analytics and automation. In particular, we are developing a course on data storytelling and visualisation for accountants who prepare management reports or are in financial planning and analysis roles so that they can apply data visualisation techniques to effectively deliver insights and data findings to their target audience. Auditors and accountants can also sign up for our new data analytics course, which will be launched in early 2021.
Covid-19’s impact on financial reporting and audit is complex. With the pandemic impacting businesses in varying degrees, there is tremendous uncertainty about the economy and the future. These present challenges, especially in areas such as assessment of going concern, impairment and fair values. All accountants will be challenged, especially in their professional judgement. ISCA has issued a number of technical publications and FAQs to support the profession in these areas. For instance, in 2020, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) had approached ISCA for inputs when developing the publication titled “Regulator’s Column: What SGX RegCo expects of financial reports amid Covid-19”. In addition to incorporating our inputs, SGX also made specific references to the “Covid-19 Technical FAQs” published by ISCA, in collaboration with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.
In 2021, we will continue working closely with standard setters, regulators and the industry to actively shape professional standards and promote best practices to help maintain a high ethical and professional standard within our financial ecosystem. Do also stay tuned to our short technical webinars, which we are organising to help busy members keep abreast of emerging topical issues and technical guidance issued by ISCA.
INSIGHTS & PUBLICATIONS
The far-reaching damage that Covid-19 has wreaked is not without a silver lining. Covid-19 has created a new normal for everyone and this is where we should seize the opportunities on the horizon. It has reset many things and levelled the playing field for some. For example, local brick-and-mortar businesses seeking to survive had to go online and in doing so, some now see an exponential increase in the size of their potential market, with a wider market reach through the Internet.
To help our members prepare for the new opportunities during and after this pandemic, ISCA will be undertaking studies and publishing reports such as the following:
1) Accountants and the Future of Work
Through this publication, members will have a better understanding of the demand and supply for the labour market moving forward, and what it means for the accountancy profession. This can help point members to a possible alternative career pathway, and employers to gain an understanding of the drivers of future employment preferred by the next generation of workforce.
2) Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Finance Functions
The Covid-19 outbreak has forced many businesses to accelerate the adoption of technology to enable business continuity. Similarly, the technological impact on finance functions is expected to gather speed and one such technology enabler is AI. The publication will highlight practical applications of AI in the finance function across different industries.
3) Country reports highlighting emerging or in-demand services in ASEAN
Given Singapore’s small domestic market, the government has been encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to internationalise. To further complement ISCA’s continuing efforts in supporting members in their internationalisation journey, the Institute will curate country reports that carry accountancy-related information including highlights on opportunities available in ASEAN – a fast-growing economic bloc.
ENHANCING THE CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT BRAND
As we continue our work in ensuring that members are equipped and able to thrive in a fast-changing world, the picture is not complete without raising the profile and promoting the chartered accountant (CA) brand. Promoting the CA brand is important to ensure that it continues to be recognised and respected by employers, businesses and the public.
In this time of crisis, ensuring financial health is critical for business survival and CAs are best placed to help businesses through challenges that arose from the crisis. This is an opportunity to showcase the pre-eminence of CAs and create confidence that CAs have the training, ethics and global expertise to help businesses navigate these challenging times. While local responses to enhance the brand are important, we need internationally coordinated responses to fulfil its potential. Together with Chartered Accountants Worldwide – a group of globally recognised chartered accountancy bodies – a global brand campaign will be developed and promoted in various countries including Singapore.
To enhance the CA brand locally, ISCA will be rolling out a media plan to promote this global CA brand campaign across varied digital channels in Singapore, reaching out to business decision makers, employers and students. A series of member profile stories will be added to promote the CA brand as part of the campaign. In addition to brand campaigns, ISCA will continue to promote the CA brand and value of the ISCA membership through our various student outreach efforts in the institutes of higher learning as well as other institutions to encourage students to choose accountancy as a field of study and become a CA.
MORE SUPPORT FOR MEMBERS
“Let us unite, demonstrate our resilience, stay united and press on in solidarity. Together, we will emerge stronger from this!” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament, 6 April 2020, delivering the Solidarity Budget
The future is fraught with uncertainties, which has made many feel stressed and anxious. Some of the questions on people’s minds are: How will the pandemic evolve? Will it ever end? Will the vaccines be effective and safe?
One of the more pressing questions would be: Would I still have a job tomorrow? The alarm bells were sounded when estimates released by the Ministry of Manpower, on 30 October 2020, showed that Singapore’s unemployment rate had shot up to a 16-year high of 3.6% in September. As more business closures are expected in the coming months, especially as government aid dries up, more retrenchments are likely. ISCA stands ready to support members who are in need.
Career support services
In 2020, ISCA directed its focus on beefing up several career support initiatives to support our members’ hiring/employment needs. We rolled out a job-matching scheme for ISCA members. This members-only service allows job-seeking members to profile themselves to potential employers by posting their career history to potential employers on an anonymous basis on ISCA’s job-matching site. Employers seeking to hire can search for suitable candidates, and inform ISCA to link them up with suitable candidates.
We also collaborated with Workforce Singapore to launch the inaugural virtual career fair and a dedicated ISCA Career Portal for accounting and finance professionals. We will continue to enhance our career support services in 2021, and we strongly encourage members in need to approach our service staff.
ISCA Support Fund
To help members cushion the impact as Covid-19 brought the Singapore economy almost to a grinding halt in 2020, the Institute had quickly put together and rolled out an assistance package valued at up to $3.6 million.
As the Covid-19 virus continues to rage on in many parts of the world, the government has cautioned about a long road to economic recovery for Singapore. The Institute is now working on an ISCA Support Fund for 2021 to curate targeted support schemes that will provide more comprehensive assistance to members and firms, to weather the economic uncertainties. Details of the schemes and corresponding eligibility criteria will be announced in due course.
DEVELOPING A RESILIENT INSTITUTE
“Come what may, no matter how daunting the challenge at hand, we will bounce back, stronger and more united than ever, as we weather this storm together.” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament, 26 March 2020, delivering the Resilience Budget
The Resilience Budget called on Singaporeans not to face the pandemic with fear and despair but with a spirit of resilience. In this regard, besides taking steps to build a resilient membership that can thrive in the new normal, ISCA is also taking concrete steps to fortify our organisational resilience so as to emerge stronger and be poised for growth when the crisis is over.
Training and events go virtual
The Covid-19 outbreak did not stop us from delivering training to members. ISCA had quickly remodelled our training courses for physical classrooms to virtual classrooms and webinars that can be streamed live to members in the safety of their own homes or another place, as long as there is Internet connectivity. We have witnessed how quick and positive our members have been towards adopting virtual learning. This gives us the encouragement to continue pushing ahead with the digital transformation of our training courses so as to enhance the virtual learning experience for members.
Going digital also helps to make professional development accessible to a wider audience that goes beyond the geographical boundaries of Singapore. However, we face increasing competition for eyeballs. A key selling point that distinguishes ISCA’s training from others is the inclusion of application-based contents, which we developed in partnership with industry practitioners and organisations that are leading experts in their fields.
With Singapore entering Phase Three of Covid-19 reopening on 28 December 2020, we are planning for the Singapore Accountancy and Audit Convention 2021 Series to take on a hybrid model with both physical and virtual platforms, subject to the prevailing conditions. This will enable ISCA to cast the net wider across the market by catering to different preferences.
The ensuing recession caused by the pandemic is affecting the more vulnerable in society disproportionately. It heightens the risk of them falling into poverty and becoming the “new poor”. Recognising that the low-income will be hardest hit when times are bad, ISCA Cares, the charity arm of the Institute, had stepped up to offer timely support to youths from financially vulnerable families last year. We brought forward the disbursement dates of the bursary awards, and awarded bursaries to more beneficiaries. In total, ISCA Cares disbursed a record $164,000 to 83 ISCA Cares Ambassadors in 2020. More will need help in such times of uncertainty. I sincerely appeal to the accountancy community for your continued support for our accountancy student-beneficiaries who are financially challenged. With your help, ISCA Cares would be able to provide more youths with access to quality education through financial assistance as well as mentorship and internship opportunities.
While businesses face challenging times, charities may have it worse. ISCA has entered into a partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth – Office of the Commissioner of Charities, to have our members provide training sessions and guidance on finance and the relevant accounting standards to the charities in Singapore. This is an opportunity for our members to leverage their skills, expertise and experience to serve and give back to society. We will be organising outreach sessions in 2021. If you wish to volunteer for this initiative, please write in to ISCA Cares and we will keep you posted on the details.
With this partnership, the Institute and our members can play a part in supporting charities to develop their finance and accounting expertise as they continue to serve their beneficiaries. I urge you to share your time and volunteer your skills in helping to uplift the charity sector.
There is a need to adapt and innovate in adversity as current business models are being challenged. Innovation is more than technology, though it is clear that technology is here to stay. Those who disregard its ubiquitous presence or do not upgrade their skills in tandem will find themselves stuck in the proverbial hamster wheel – working hard, running furiously, but going nowhere.
Covid-19 has all but completely wrecked many countries, economies, businesses and people’s lives. That Singapore, and Singaporeans, would be facing a challenging time ahead was acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he said, “Now, we have to prepare for a very different future… The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us.”
My response to life’s curveballs is best captured by the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” When the going gets tough, just keep going. Let’s keep our spirits high, remain optimistic and build resilience. In the meantime, the profession must be frugal yet flexible in its outlook, and be innovative and agile in its response to the needs of the market, on the back of building stronger foundations. In this way, we can develop into a more resilient profession poised for a better future. The profession has an enduring value. It will outlast Covid-19. We will bounce back.
I wish you best of health, success and a very Happy New Year!
“Moving forward with fortitude – as we stay united as one people, remain resilient in the face of adversity, and stand in solidarity with one another.” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament, 26 May 2020, delivering the Fortitude Budget
Kon Yin Tong is President, Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants.