Rajan Asirwatham laments the ongoing brain drain and loss of local talent

Compiled by Randheer Mallawaarachchi

Q: How has the accountancy landscape changed over the years?

A: As a profession, accountancy has been around for centuries since Luca Pacioli – who is known as ‘the father of accounting’ – popularised it in 1494. The term ‘audit’ was heavily influenced by the Latin word audire, which means ‘to hear.’

In the early years, Sri Lanka lacked proper educational and guidance mechanisms to nurture accountancy professionals, making overseas education a highly sought after option.

The first revolutionary change for accountancy in the local context took place in 1959 when the Institute of Chartered Accountants Act No. 23 afforded future professionals an opportunity to become chartered accountants – and I was one of seven who qualified in 1967.

Controversy loomed around the accountancy profession because some believed that pass rates were kept down to a certain percentage to falsify the actual effectiveness of the education system. Thinking patterns were fairly limited in the early years, and individuals took this as a sign of diminishing standards and arrived at the conclusion that it would be better to pursue their education overseas.

The institutes that educate our future professionals develop their curricula by adhering to the same course modules (barring a select few) that are followed by leading international universities. I believe that this questions the logic behind the controversy.

Accountancy has evolved significantly over the centuries. To my recollection, there have been 35 accounting standards and stringent guidelines issued to govern the profession whereas the environment in which I blossomed was fairly primitive.

Chartered accountancy is highly sought after in the modern context where over 6,600 Sri Lankans strive to earn this recognition annually, resulting in a percentage of accountants proportionate to its population. To my knowledge, around 600 graduates have been certified to practise the profession.

Q: Has the pandemic changed the role of chartered accountants, in your opinion?

A: The pandemic is challenging for every aspect of the business environment. The working atmosphere is such that clients shy away from direct interactions with auditing entities so that a mutual understanding ensues regarding the need to interact on a digital platform.

However, a crucial consideration that should be taken into account is the fact that not all entities have the financial strength to invest in sophisticated technologies. The brunt of COVID-19 has been severely felt by SMEs – especially fresh startups that are incapable of adopting digital solutions.

Strict guidelines have been issued on the ideal measures that need to be taken in the wake of such a threat, contributing significantly in terms of damage control and the mitigation of financial losses.

Q: What is your opinion regarding the availability of talent in the local market?

A: In the early 1970s, the British scouted different regions – mainly Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and Sri Lanka – for talent to serve The Crown.

Amidst the scouted talent, the Sri Lankan representation stood out. Like diamonds in the rough, they proved what the proud nation of Ceylon could achieve with adequate nurturing and polishing.

It’s my belief that the potential showcased by our chartered accountants made the world take note of our strict standards and quality in terms of service delivery.

Global recognition is a threat as it fuels the underlying risk of temptation to indulge in better opportunities away from our motherland.

A prime cause for talent migration is the absence of opportunities that provide benefits such as financial, psychological or general entitlements.

The availability of opportunities in the modern context is drastically different to those in the early years. Yet, a majority display a reluctance to return after earning the desired qualifications.

This is an issue that we need to address to prevent other countries from reaping the rewards of the seeds our nation has planted.

Q: How do you see the development of the accountancy profession going forward?

A: In my opinion, the pursuit of knowledge should not be halted upon gaining the status of chartered accountant. Accountancy is a field that is continuously updated.

Continuing professional development (CPD) approaches need to be adopted to keep abreast of evolving market requirements in terms of updated skills and competencies that are needed to excel in a global space, as well as the latest hype, trends and technological advancements and innovations.

The interviewee is a chartered accountant – and a former Senior Partner and Country Head of KPMG