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Speech by Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Financeand Education at ACCA Singapore's Annual Conference, 14 May 2019, Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre

Mr Leo Lee, Immediate Past President, ACCA

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen 

LEAPING INTO THE FUTURE WITH AGILITY

Introduction

1. It is always a great pleasure to attend the ACCA’s conferences and events – something that is close to my heart having come from the professional services sector myself.

2. The world is fast changing with new business models emerging and many businesses are fast becoming irrelevant. Ten years ago, Grab was unheard of. Coursera too was unheard of. Today, nearly everyone knows what these companies are and what they do. If you actually look at today’s Straits Times, you will see on today’s front page a whole list of jobs which did not exist five or ten years ago, completely new jobs of the future.

3. Similarly, businesses, including those in the accountancy sector are being challenged by technological, trade and talent disruptions. The question is, “What do we do? How do you deal with these?” You can have a denial mind-set, which gives temporary comfort but is not useful in the long run, or you can embrace these challenges. We can be agile and adapt, in order not to suffer from “future shock”, a term by futurist Alvin Toffler, which means “too much change in too short a period of time”. I think we can all empathise with that, because the pace of change has been so fast. Ten years later, where will we be at? How can we go from here? These are some questions we need to ask ourselves to be prepared. 

4. Today, I would like to cover four areas of agility: agility in upgrading, agility in business partnering, agility in business transformation and lastly, agility in capturing new business opportunities. 

Agility in upgrading

5. Let’s start first with upgrading. Widespread technological innovations, coupled with the increasing integration of the global economy, will force accountants and other professionals to compete for jobs in the global arena. It is important for accountants to be agile and deepen skillsets to be even more effective.

6. A recent ACCA article on “Your digital quotient is a killer skill” states and I quote “your ability to constantly evolve your technology skills - your digital quotient - is a pivotal competency that will keep your career, indeed your profession, in the game”. For those of you who are familiar with basketball, you will know that when you are playing basketball, you cannot stand with your feet flat on the floor. You have to balance on the balls of your feet. It is exactly like that, except that in the mental space, you have to stay on the balls of your feet and be ready to move. With rapid technological developments, it is important to pivot and be well versed with technology. 

7. Lifelong learning is something that is close to my heart, and is something that I am associated with, because I led the Committee for Applied Studies in Polytechnics and ITE (ASPIRE). But that actually became something that went well beyond the polytechnics and ITE. It evolved into SkillsFuture, which is a national movement to align education with economic demand, career guidance and lifelong learning. Universities around the world and in Singapore have incorporated analytics in their curriculum. Increasingly, employers expect fresh graduates to be trained and competent in digital skills. Experienced accountants who want to remain relevant will similarly need to equip yourselves with good digital skills like analytics.

8. Apart from analytics, there are also other skills needed for different jobs in the accountancy sector. These skills are set out in the “The Skills Framework for the Accountancy Sector”, which can be found on Singapore Accountancy Commission’s website. For those who wish to move into new high-growth areas, there are also Professional Conversion Programmes in place that will help you to gain the necessary new skills for the new job roles in those growth areas.

9. So please do acquire new skills by attending courses, seminars and conferences and be on this drive for learning and agility. You can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in this agility drive.  ACCA, like all other accountancy professional bodies, is also here to help you. ACCA is collaborating with the NUS School of Continuing and Lifelong Education, to offer a series of Continuous Professional Development courses for ACCA members. These courses will enable accountants to stay relevant with the right knowledge and skills.

10. Clearly, there are no lack of opportunities and avenues to re-skill and up-skill. I would urge you to make good use of these opportunities and avenues. Skilling-up will take your time, your energy and your determination. But, if you desire a better future, I urge you to ignite the agility drive to pick up new skills. I think anybody who has been in professional services know this – there is competing time and demands on you, with your clients on your back. Your clients want these things and it is not just ‘now’ but he wants it by ‘yesterday’, and you have to clear all of these things. But it is important to make that time, carve out that time for yourself to grow, carve out that time to learn new things. It is an investment. It is uncomfortable, because it means you have to say stop to all those things that are piling up and causing pressure at the back of your mind. But if you think long-term, and how you can invest in yourself in the future, then it is a worthwhile thing to do, to set aside that time to be able to learn a new skill, chart a new path, set a new direction.

Agility in business partnering 
 
11. This brings me to my second point on agility in business partnering. Having the necessary skills is important as accountants are trusted advisors to businesses. Accountants play a business partnering role to business owners by being involved in digital transformation, business model innovation and internationalisation. Being a business partner, you are a torch, a light that illuminates opportunities, a proponent of good governance, and an advocate for business growth. Underpinning these roles again is the word - agility. Agility is not only about upgrading but also about having the right mind-set. Anybody in the organisation can have this mind-set regardless of rank:

a) Agility can be seen in the young management associate who taps on technologies to develop financial dashboards to improve decision making.

b) Agility can be seen in the young finance manager who uses analytics to improve business forecasting. 

c) Agility can be seen in the CFO who explores the use of sophisticated digital solutions like Robotic Process Automation to improve productivity. 

12. CFOs, in particular, have to deal with higher expectations and rapid changes in businesses. The age-old manual processes of planning, budgeting, forecasting will have to change over time. CFOs need to have the capabilities, courage and charisma to lead the charge to change. Change to be agile and transform finance function for the future.  

13. Agile finance is not limited to the private sector. It is also gaining momentum in the public sector. As part of the Smart Nation Initiative and Public Service Transformation process, public sector agencies are moving towards centralising the finance, human resource and payroll systems using technologies such as a cloud enterprise resource planning solution. Agencies aim to leverage on such technologies to automate processes and enhance fraud detection. 

14. Data analytics capabilities are now entrenched into the DNA of the public sector finance through the use of Fi@Gov, which is a one-stop finance analytics portal introduced in 2016.  With big data and analytics, the public sector is empowered with quality insights to monitor its finance performance on a real time and continuous basis. This means that agencies are now faster in detecting irregularities and more timely in spotting process bottlenecks. As a result, there is better service delivery and promptness in payment to Government suppliers.

15. This is just a preview or an appetiser of what the Government is doing. There are on-going reviews of policies and conventional practices by a finance transformation team within the Accountant-General’s Department that endeavours to break new grounds. I encourage you to likewise embark on your own finance transformation programmes so that your finance teams can be even better business partners to your organisations. 

Agility in business transformation

16. Agility is important for businesses as what made them successful in the past is unlikely to make them successful in the future. With Industry 4.0, there is a wave of digital disruptions to industries and to the wider economy. Today, the success of any business hinges on how well and effectively they manage the waves of disruptions.  Businesses need to see the impending disruptions and respond to them promptly by taking the first step to transform. When I mean transform, I don’t just mean agility in re-inventing and re-imagining new business models. Business leaders need to be progressive and passionate in propelling a sense of purpose for their employees too. I sometimes speak to young associates who say that they want to try out new things but bosses a bit further up the line can be resistant. Actually, young associates and young employees can be sources of inspiration and new ideas that can transform the business. So do give them a listening ear, be willing to experiment and explore, give them that space, give them charge of a project to see if it works. You will be surprised that they have a lot of energy and with the right kind of support and motivation, I suspect they would surprise you.

17. According to the market demand for professional business and advisory services report by ACCA and SAC, companies are demanding more advisory services in the area of technology. Accountants having a deep understanding of the operations and financials of the companies, can be agents of change by helping their companies ride this technological wave. For those in the accountancy practices, there is also scope to provide more services apart from the usual audit services. 

18. I am happy to know that eight small and medium accountancy practices, or SMPs for short, joined the ACCA AccXelerator Programme that helps them capture new opportunities in new markets and adopt scalable technologies to grow. With ACCA’s partnership with NTUC and AI Singapore, SMPs will have more access to experts and mentors and the pipeline of SMPs embarking on this programme can be expanded. This is a positive first step and I look forward to more SMPs taking advantage of this and other similar initiatives to adopt agile mind-sets and practices that will help them grow their businesses. 

19. A 2018 ACCA report, which highlights the importance of vision and strategy to SMEs, succinctly states: ‘’It is important to stay agile, because the changing business environment often does not tolerate anyone being stationary.’’ 

20. There are merits to being agile. A report entitled The Future of Business by ACCA’s strategic alliance partner, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand found that 55% of businesses that report being above-average in terms of agility were also experiencing above-average revenue growth. The report highlighted that agility is a characteristic that business leaders cannot afford to overlook. 

21. As companies embark on this transformation, I urge you to tap onto resources such as the Business Grants Portal. There is help available, make use of it. The portal brings government grants for businesses into one place, so that it is easier to find and apply for the grants that you need to transform, to grow and to compete internationally. 

Agility in Capturing New Business Opportunities

22. Business agility is the ability of businesses to be sensitive to changes both internally and externally, and to respond in creative ways to create value to their customers. Apart from improving existing businesses, there is another aspect of agility and that is in capturing new business opportunities. There is a need to identify business opportunities to develop in this dynamic landscape. 

23. One such area is the infrastructure space. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that Asia needs up to US$26 trillion up to 2030 in order to maintain its growth momentum. This works out to about US$1.7 trillion annually. Close to double the current investment, which is at only about US$880 billion annually. 

24. To support the region’s project structuring needs, the Government set up Infrastructure Asia last year. If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it is, please go check it out on its website. This agency serves to promote and connect the strong base of infrastructure firms based in Singapore, including financial institutions and professional services firms to the region’s infrastructure needs. In short, Infrastructure Asia’s role is to connect demand and supply. The demand is in the region, but the demand is for the professional services. The supply of professional services for infrastructure, a lot of it is located in Singapore, both local and international firms. Singapore has the eco-system to meet the demand in its surrounding areas. That is what Infrastructure Asia’s job is – to connect that demand and supply. So it will be useful for those of you who have infrastructure advisory departments or teams to tap on what Infrastructure Asia has to offer. Accounting firms will be able to benefit from this growth by offering advisory, and of course accountancy services. So do capture the opportunities on this front. 

Moving towards a better future

25. Ladies and gentlemen, let us be agile for a better future. Say goodbye to the time when you had to punch numbers key by key or flip through the financials page by page. Say goodbye to the time when you had to deal with loads of mundane work, loads of unnecessary stress and little sleep. You notice that I said unnecessary stress because some stress will still be there, it is unavoidable. But let’s try to do away with the parts that are unnecessary. 

26. Say hello instead to a future when Robotic Process Automation does the mundane work for you, and frees you up to focus on what is truly important – understanding and meeting the needs of your clients. There are many things that robots and automation can do, but there are also many things that they can’t. They can’t do the strategic thinking, they can’t do the nuancing, the understanding of basic human nature, the way human beings react, the emotional quotient, the social objectives. These are not things that computers and machines can capture. So let the computers and machines do the mundane, and you concentrate on the high value-added work, the business of dealing with other human beings, and developing things that will improve things for human beings as a whole. The multi-faceted impact of agile work practices on accountants and other professionals will transform practices, finance departments, and consequently the economy as a whole. The time to be agile is not tomorrow but today. I hope this conference will generate the momentum for agility and we can together leap and spring the accountancy sector to even greater heights. 
 
27. I wish you all a very fruitful conference today. Thank you very much for having me here! Published on : 14 May 2019
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