This article was first published in the May 2019 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Finance professionals singled out confidence that the new Malaysian government’s policies are addressing economic issues and combating corruption as the key driver for business performance in 2019. More than two-thirds of the respondents of a survey by ACCA and the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA) expect business performance to potentially improve, with more business-friendly policies and ethical conduct across the market.

The survey, published in the Business and economic outlook 2019 report – whose January launch was attended by Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin, also revealed that although a majority of respondents were receptive to changes in government policy on economic issues, a significant number were wary of the effects. Respondents also believed that the rising cost of living and low wage growth could negatively affect their businesses this year.  

A total of 399 accountants and finance professionals responded to the inaugural survey, which was conducted online at the end of last year. More than three-quarters (78%) of the respondents hailed from the corporate and public practice sectors, with nearly half from firms with more than 300 employees, both listed and non-listed. Both top and middle management were also well represented.

In her presentation of the survey results, MIA CEO Dr Nurmazilah Mahzan said that the findings offered valuable feedback for decision-makers. ‘The accounting profession plays an important role towards the development and growth of the economy, so insight and foresight from accountants and finance professionals, and how they think is important for decision-makers,’ she said.

Wait and see

During the discussion on the survey findings, MMC Group CFO Mohd Shahar Yope noted that the results are in line with what’s happening on the ground. He said that although there has been a general boost in confidence towards the new government’s policies, their impact remains to be seen. Deloitte SEA partner Lim Fen Nee agreed, adding thaat there is a prevailing ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

Mohd Shahar and Lim took part in a panel – moderated by Sharath Martin, ACCA’s regional policy consultant, ASEAN and ANZ – which also included Skali group chairman Aimi Aizal Nasharuddin and Wan Suhaimie Wan Mohd Saidie, head of economic research at Kenanga Investment Bank.

What would be beneficial, said Mohd Shahar, is for the government to shed some light on where the country is headed. ‘We don’t know where we are going next,’ he said, suggesting that greater government and industry engagement is necessary. 

Talent challenge

Speaking on the development of talent, Nurmazilah added that the industry can play a role in guiding educational institutions on producing marketable graduates. ‘This is where input from the profession is important because they are the employers,’ she said. Wan Suhaimie added that apart from preparing the country’s future workforce, the education system also has to shape young minds to be more progressive. ‘The education system has to be one that ensures that when children grow up they have one objective and that is to ensure that the country gets better,’ he said.

Related to the issue of talent, digital trends featured significantly on the minds of the survey respondents, as well as the speakers and panellists at the launch. In the survey, 80% and 59% of respondents respectively believe that digital revolution and transformation, as well as the increased usage of automation and artificial intelligence, will affect businesses.

At a media briefing session at the close of the launch, Nurmazilah pointed out that technology now provides the space for accounting and finance professionals to interpret data.

‘Accountants are already comfortable with data due to their training,’ she said. ‘That skill, combined with the harnessing of technology, means that mundane jobs can now be taken over by technology. Accountants themselves can use the time to interpret the data and use that to help the business.’

Relearning and unlearning skills will be necessary, she added, in order for accounting and finance professionals to enhance their existing skillsets and be in tandem with the digital revolution.

‘Problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills are going to be very important, and it goes back to the ability of the accounting and finance professional to innovate,’ Nurmazilah said.

Sharath added that thought has to be given to those who are already in the workforce: ‘Professional accountants who have already been working for five or 10 years may be most impacted by digitisation as they may not have been taught about cloud computing, analytics, robotic process automation or blockchain,’ he said. ‘Reskilling these professionals to harness such technology applications will have to be an area of focus for them and for professional bodies going forward.’

Sreerema Banoo, journalist