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August 26, 2010

Low Weng Keong interview: International outlook

Low Weng Keong, CPA Australia president Low Weng Keong is the second consecutive CPA Australia president to be based outside Australia and the first non-Australian to hold the post. Weng tells Carolyn Canham how CPA Australia is comfortably international and shares his thoughts about Singapore’s aim to become an accountancy hub.


Low Weng Keong says his election as CPA Australia’s first non-Australian president demonstrates the professional body is putting its “money where its mouth is” when it says it is internationally relevant.

“We do mean it without exception in everything we do. We do try and find the best way to do things and we are not constrained by borders,” Weng says.

At the same time, Weng is adamant that not too much emphasis is placed on his nationality or country of residence.

“We need to move away from the significance of having an Australian versus a non-Australia as a president,” he explains. “CPA Australia has always been global and we have always been international in our outlook, always. Not just in the past two years, or five years, we set up in Asia in the early 1950s, so we have been around in Asia for 60 years.

“We have had non-Australians sitting on the board for a long time, so it is not by design that there have been two Asian-based presidents in a row – we don’t distinguish.

“For us, it has always been one organisation and if it so happens that the person the board feels comfortable with to helm the organisation comes from Australia, so be it. If they are comfortable with someone who at that point in time happens to be based outside of Australia, then that is the way it works.”


International beginnings

Weng was born and educated in Malaysia, before spending 12 years in the UK where he completed his accountancy training. From the UK, he moved to Singapore and has been there since.

Weng has worked for a number of accounting firms, beginning with small practices and working his way up to becoming a country managing partner of Ernst & Young Singapore. He has also spent time in business, working for a US oil and gas multinational as the Far East tax manager.

Since retiring in 2005, Weng has spent a significant amount of time on CPA Australia activities, as well as sitting as an independent director on a number of public company boards.

Weng came about his CPA Australia membership in a rather unorthodox way. Instead of gaining the qualification for the sake of his career and then moving into a leadership role, he became a member so he could take on a leadership role.

Weng was first introduced to the organisation by a neighbour and family friend, who was the CPA Australia Singapore division general manager in the early 2000s. She invited Weng to give talks and seminars to members. Weng became a member so he could sit on the divisional council. He progressed to the board and then the presidency.


Building a hub

Singapore’s government has set its sights on establishing the city as a regional accountancy hub. Weng hopes there will be a role for CPA Australia to play in this development. The organisation has offered to help in any way possible.

Weng is also confident that Singapore is well placed to achieve its goals.

“There is an advantage that we have in Singapore,” he explains. “The country is small, but the skills are very high. The people are hard-working and quite smart and the government is nimble. This meant that when they recognised there was a need to develop this sector in Singapore, they moved ahead and gave their full support to ensure it happens. I am pretty sure it will happen very successfully in a very short time.”

By positioning itself as a regional hub, Singapore is setting itself in direct competition with other Asian business centres. Weng says this competition is healthy.

“It does not stop other countries from also having the ambitions of being a hub or providing excellent accountancy services,” he says.

“Our ambition is like our ambition to have first-class universities and for students from all over the world to come here. I don’t think it has been, or should be, viewed negatively by other countries.”

If Singapore’s accounting profession has many strengths, its one possible weakness is its relative youth in terms of exposure to the sophisticated financial world, Weng says. But even this is barely a weakness as progress has been fast.

“We have come quite a long way and now we have set ourselves to be among the leaders in accountancy expertise,” Weng says.

Singapore’s regional aspirations and CPA Australia’s international leadership both reflect increasing cohesion in the Asia-Pacific profession. There appears to be a healthy balance between regional co-operation and competition and it will be a benefit to all stakeholders if this continues.

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