As head of internal audit at Malaysia Airlines, Dato' Merina Abu Tahir FCCA has embraced the changing business landscape by adopting an integrated approach
This article was first published in the January 2018 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Busier than the proverbial bee, Dato’ Merina Abu Tahir FCCA wears several hats. Currently, she is head of internal audit at Malaysia Airlines and recently became president of the ACCA Malaysia Advisory Committee (MAC). Both roles require deft leadership, oversight, prudence and commitment to delivering value and direction in a business landscape that is rife with disruption and volatility.
Where is ACCA headed under her watch? ‘ACCA seeks to play a strong role in supporting the development of the profession in Malaysia and is committed to helping build the country’s capacity and competency through accountancy,’ Dato’ Merina says. She lists some current initiatives, which include establishing a special pathway for MIA members to be professionally qualified; collaborating with the Malaysia Professional Accountancy Centre, Peneraju and MARA University of Technology to increase the number of professionally qualified Bumiputera accountants; and enhancing ACCA outreach beyond the Klang Valley and major cities by expanding into second cities and East Malaysia.
Apart from leading MAC, Merina also serves on the MIA (Malaysian Institute of Accountants) Council, which builds invaluable networks, engagement and support for ACCA’s work. ‘Through my involvement in the MIA council, I am able to reach out and share ACCA’s global experience and work with regulators, learning providers, employers, universities and government to help implement some of the game-changing recommendations in the government’s Committee to Strengthen the Accountancy Profession report,’ she explains.
Her day job is equally exhilarating and rewarding. ‘As head of internal audit, I provide assurance to the board of directors and management on the state of internal controls, risk management and corporate governance,’ Dato’ Merina says. ‘I report to the board audit committee, which keeps me very engaged and busy. There is never a dull moment.’
To truly optimise their function, internal auditors have a choice between being a watchdog and a value-added adviser. ‘You can be the internal auditor who just keeps to the audit plan to meet your KPIs. Or you can actually become a change agent and a trusted adviser. What you do is not as important as how you do it,’ Dato’ Merina says.
Are internal audit’s recommendations always taken up? Speaking generally, Dato’ Merina notes that internal audit always faces that challenge where the organisation ‘accepts the recommendations but resolution may take longer for various reasons.’
Ideally, she says, internal auditors need to be intellectually curious and exercise emotional intelligence to be able to work with the organisation to implement the recommendations and exert change. Personal traits that have helped her push across recommended changes are having a strong ethical compass, perseverance and resilience.
As digital disruption gains ground, cybersecurity risks are top-of-mind for boards and internal auditors across the globe, and the airline industry is no different. ‘Disruption is not only in terms of the business model but also in the emerging technologies that are coming up,’ she says, adding that companies cannot afford to compartmentalise cybersecurity risk as purely an IT problem.
‘The business environment is increasingly complex and organisations are heavily reliant on IT for their processes,’ she says. ‘To understand the organisation’s internal controls over their processes requires an understanding of the effectiveness and adequacy of IT controls. At Malaysia Airlines, the IT auditor is part of every assignment.’
Dato’ Merina took the decision to disband the IT audit department a few years ago. Instead, each audit is integrated, incorporating operational, financial and IT audits. ‘All my internal auditors are trained to perform basic IT audits and there are a few certified IT auditors whom I leverage on for the highly technical areas,’ she explains.
The integrated IT audit entails an entirely different approach. ‘Integrated audits enable internal auditors to break down silos and review the organisation’s processes holistically, rather than piecemeal,’ Dato’ Merina says. ‘As the entire organisation’s IT infrastructure is integrated, from the accounting and email to HR and various operational systems, an integrated audit approach will ensure the full processes and related risks are addressed. Gone are the days of auditing the hardcopy ledgers.’
To keep her agile team of 24 ahead of the game, her policy is to always encourage lifelong learning. ‘For us to be able to advise, we must have the knowledge as well,’ she says. ‘If you don’t know, learn, and eventually you will know. It’s not just knowing the risks but knowing how to manage these risks. Being in internal audit, we don’t have to be the technical expert but we must know enough to advise on obtaining the right solutions.’
Power of data analytics
To heighten productivity, Dato’ Merina is a ‘great believer in data analytics as an auditing tool. We started with computer-assisted audit techniques using data analytics, progressed on to continuous auditing and are now moving on to continuous monitoring.’ She explains that, in addition to basic IT controls, each internal auditor is trained on scripting. This works well for both the organisation, which gets a higher skilled workforce, and internal audit staff, who will have obtained additional skills to become more marketable. Data analytics have made her team more efficient and productive; and next up is robotics. ‘That is the future, where my team can really focus on the value-added work of internal audit,’ she says.
To ensure that the internal audit function discharges its duties optimally, the right talent is key. Malaysia Airlines is an ACCA Approved Employer for the professional development stream, which means ACCA member CPD requirements are taken care of by the employer. Malaysia Airlines also provides sponsorship for employees to obtain the ACCA Qualification and employs a number of ACCA and student members, including several in internal audit, from different pathways and backgrounds. ‘That’s the beauty of ACCA; you take the path that suits you.’
Dato’ Merina tries to benchmark recruitment and development against ACCA’s seven skill areas or quotients, which ACCA’s research – Professional accountants – the future – has shown as being essential to the evolving profession. These are technical and ethical, intelligence, creativity, digital, emotional intelligence, vision and experience. ‘Integrity and ethics are the first thing I look at,’ Dato’ Merina says.
The ethical quotient is particularly critical because the role of internal audit is to provide assurance in the interests of good governance, while maintaining the highest standards of integrity, independence and scepticism.
Dato’ Merina also believes in diversity across all dimensions. ‘Rojak or fruit salad is nicer than having just an apple!’ she says. ‘I also have a generational mix; old people are also very useful,’ she quips, adding that she is the oldest member of her team.
Dato’ Merina acknowledges how grateful she is for support from all quarters. She is blessed to have the support of her husband, Hanif Hamid, a fellow FCCA, and her four children, especially at times when they both worked abroad and throughout the various challenging periods in her career. ‘My children would say that my hobby is ACCA,’ she says. ‘Even on weekends, I’m reading AB MY and the various ACCA social media postings!’
As the recipient of a government scholarship to study accountancy, she is especially grateful to the government and the nation for opening up her horizons and enabling her to enrich her life through ACCA. She took up ACCA at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University and then at Emile Woolf College of Accountancy in London, passing on her first attempt. ‘The government was visionary and recognised that ACCA was a way forward for national development,’ Dato’ Merina says. ‘The profession and ACCA allowed me to have many options in my career, and anchored me at a very young age – 17 – when I didn’t know what I wanted to be,’ she says. ‘I just knew that I wanted an interesting life and ACCA certainly gave that to me.’
The privileges and opportunities she has received are driving factors in her mission to serve ACCA and the profession to the best of her ability. Ultimately, she says, she aims to leave a meaningful legacy, and to make a difference and give back to society and country. ‘I am passionate about ACCA and making changes because I am leaving this legacy for future generations.’
Nazatul Izma Abdullah, journalist
"Integrated audits enable internal auditors to break down silos and review the organisation’s processes holistically, rather than piecemeal"