Date posted: 01/07/2019 5 min read

Why CAs should spend time with our Asian neighbours

Asia is hugely important for business, but are Australia and New Zealand getting it right? Here’s what Asia-based CAs think.

In Brief

  • CA ANZ members can help bridge culture and language gaps between businesses in Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the region.
  • Having an ‘Asia strategy’ is the wrong approach, as every country has unique qualities.
  • Australian businesses and trade offices abroad could invest more in Asian staff and expertise.

Story Ben Hurley

Gladys Lim FCA: Asians know how Asia works

Gladys Lim FCAPicture: Gladys Lim FCA

In the 1980s, in the early days of her career at PwC, Gladys Lim FCA was told by one of the partners that he didn’t feel she’d ever have the opportunity to become a partner at the firm. Lim thought that being an Asian female may have had something to do with it.

“The market in Australia – the employment market and the clients – were mainly white Australians, so maybe he felt it would be a big barrier,” Lim says.

“I think that it happens everywhere. There is always this discrimination where people feel more comfortable with some cultures.”

Thankfully, times are changing, says Lim, who is a committee member of the CA ANZ Malaysian chapter.

Australian society is becoming more diverse, and so are Australian firms. But some fears still remain about Asian firms “taking over”. She believes embracing change is the best way to secure the nation’s future.

Lim completed a Bachelor of Economics (Accounting) at Melbourne’s Monash University in the early 1980s, obtained her CA designation while working at PwC, and in 1995 completed an MBA at RMIT University in Melbourne. She also became a permanent resident of Australia.

Lim has since moved back to her birthplace of Malaysia, and for 10 years has been financial controller at Balfour Beatty Ansaldo Systems, which builds and maintains railway systems. She told Acuity she had recently taken up a new CFO position, which at the time of writing was yet to be announced.

Lim says Australian businesses and trade offices abroad should invest more in Asian staff and expertise, as it takes deep cultural nuance to cultivate networks in the region. At the moment, it is still usually white men representing Australia in Asia, she observes.

“In Asia, the networks and roots are very deep, so you need to send the right people to cultivate those networks,” she says. “You have a lot of immigrants in Australia, and you should take advantage of that [when they] move back to Asia to cultivate these networks.”

Andrew Er FCA: Spend more time with the neighbours

Andrew Er FCAPicture: Andrew Er FCA

Australia and New Zealand need to deepen their understanding of Asia and learn to see themselves as part of the neighbourhood, says the chair of the CA ANZ Singapore Members Committee.

Andrew Er FCA was born in Brisbane to a Malaysian father who studied in Australia, and an Australian mother with Chinese heritage. He notes that many Australians think of Asia as just a handful of cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore.

“But Asia is so much more than that,” he says. “Regardless of what happens, you’re going to have to live with your neighbours and, to understand them, you’ve got to spend time and effort in their place.”

Australian businesses tend to overlook the expertise of those who return from Asia, he says.

“If Australian companies realised how important Asia is to the Australian economy and Australian businesses, returning Australian professionals would be holding a lot more key managerial and leadership posts,” Er says.

“In Singapore, 65% of the CA ANZ members are Australian expats, and when they return they ought to be parachuting into very senior and highly valued positions. It astonishes me that they don’t.”

Er went to high school at St Joseph’s College in Sydney, then studied a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of New South Wales. He earned his CA designation while at EY’s Sydney office in the 1990s. He laments the lack of focus on Asia in the Australian education system.

“We are taught about England, Germany, France and Italy, but we’re not taught about Cambodia and Vietnam and Myanmar,” he says.

Er set up the Singapore office of FCC Partners, a Taiwanese banking advisory group where he is now managing director. He is also managing director of advisory firm Quantum Health.

His advice for foreigners new to Singapore is to be aware of the cultural differences. The country may appear like “Asia 101” because of how easy it is for Westerners to fit in, but if you drill down further there is a lot of Chinese influence, he says. “They’re very big on family values, they’re very big on unity, and they’re very big on respect.”

Gabriel Choong FCA: International students mean future opportunities

Gabriel Choong FCAPicture: Gabriel Choong FCA.

Australian and New Zealand government policies towards overseas students reflect fears that Asian students will gain their degrees and stay for good, denying others work opportunities – but the reality is different, says Gabriel Choong FCA, a member of the CA ANZ Malaysia Committee.

When he finished his studies in New Zealand in the early 1990s, he had just a one-year window to find a relevant job through the post-study work visa. Choong says that was too rushed, and cut off an opportunity for New Zealand to build affinity with Asia’s business leaders of the future.

As he explains, Malaysian students typically return home to look after their families and earn better salaries than would be possible without overseas experience.

“Australia and New Zealand should look at that as part of a policy to retain human resources, and they can benefit from that,” he says. “When [these people] climb the ladder and are expanding businesses overseas, they will first look to countries they are familiar with.”

It seems the New Zealand government was listening. It changed the rules in November 2018, so international students who complete a bachelor degree can apply for a three-year post-study work visa, working for any employer.

Choong graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Management Studies from the University of Waikato, with the help of a New Zealand government scholarship.

He later worked at property developer Metro Kajang Holdings [now MKH Berhad], before heading up the administration and finance department of subsidiary Epikon.

He is now CEO of consulting firm Liberty Global Consultancy and also runs New Zealand consultancy Liberty Global Network.

Choong believes that while Australia and New Zealand are comfortable selling the majority of their exported goods to Asia, they have not yet made the most of opportunities to export services to Asia.

He disagrees with the characterisation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as “debt-trap diplomacy”, saying it has brought enormous opportunity to a lot of countries in the region.

“Countries should look at their ability to repay before borrowing, but they know China is there to help them,” Choong says. “It’s a very good initiative and helps a lot of countries.”

Vincent Leung CA: Remember, Asia is a diverse place

Vincent Leung CAPicture: Vincent Leung CA

Business leaders and politicians from Australia and New Zealand should start being more careful with how they use the term ‘Asia’, says Vincent Leung CA, the vice chair of the CA ANZ Hong Kong Committee.

In describing a region of 5 billion people, ‘Asia’ is a term so broad it’s meaningless in a lot of contexts, he says.

“When people say we need an Asia strategy, we need to have Asian representation on the board, I think they are missing the point,” Leung says. “If you have an ‘Asia strategy’ it means you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Rather, companies need to be specific about which market they are looking at. “Is it a Chinese strategy? An Indonesian strategy? They’re not the EU. It’s not a single market governed by a single authority. Every country has unique qualities.”

Born in Sydney to parents from Hong Kong, Leung completed a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of New South Wales in 2005, and his CA designation while working at PwC.

He has since sat on the board of the Martin Aircraft Company (Martin Jetpak) before it de-listed from the ASX in June 2018, and now is associate director at boutique asset management firm AOP Capital.

“The middle class in China is growing, and the middle class in China will always seek a better education or quality of life for their family,” Leung says. “Australia and New Zealand are very attractive for that, and with that comes investment.”

But Leung says companies wanting to expand in the region need people to help understand the nuances of culture and language, otherwise there is potential for misunderstandings or even a complete breakdown of communication.

CA ANZ members can play a strong role in bridging culture and language gaps between businesses in Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the region, he says. For accountants seeking work experience in Asia, the Hong Kong branch of CA ANZ is a great place to start to meet people and build your network, he adds.

“If you don’t get out of Australia, how can you step up to that plate?” he asks.

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