A recent study shows that accountants with strong financial and accounting skills are not threatened by aggressive AI adoption in the accounting domain, despite the rise of influential artificial intelligence technologies like ChatGPT and OpenAI in the accounting industry. Due to their structured nature, entry-level accountants were initially thought to be particularly vulnerable to task automation by AI technologies.

To find out more, we spoke to Mei Yoke Pak for AAT in Malaysia about the current state of the industry in Malaysia and how it might evolve in the coming months.

We explore the future of Generative AI in Southeast Asia

Despite fluctuations in business and economic growth, it is anticipated that demand for qualified accountants will remain strong and possibly even rise in the upcoming years. International businesses are still actively seeking professional accounting graduates, especially those with in-depth training and credentials from reputable institutions.

Accounting professionals are in high demand all over the world, including in wealthy countries like Singapore, China, and Dubai. Professional accountants are now playing a bigger part in providing financial advice, analysing clients’ financial situations, and emphasising analytics.

Here is what Mei had to share.

Has there been any change in sentiment over the last 12 months amongst students in terms of their potential job security?

To answer this question, we must consider the working adults’ and the school leavers’ sentiments. 

Yes, there has been a stir among the working adults in the accountancy field. This is obvious, especially among the entry-level staff who do not have recognised qualifications. They fear that their jobs, which primarily involve paper shuffling and keying financial data into the system, will be taken over. Already, we have seen and are witnessing front-line jobs like receptionist, waiters, and counter sales being replaced by AI. They realise that they must acquire some qualifications, especially a diploma, to remain relevant.  If not, they will surely be side-tracked.

Additionally, with the advent of Internet-of-Things (IOT), and the increasing use and invasion of technology in all areas of our lives such as leisure, work, and home; many students are not keen on pursuing a career in accounting. The idea of holding a job does not interest them, and neither do they want to exert their intellect for unnecessary tasks. Number crunching and following rules are something that they do not envisage themselves doing. They prefer to be their own boss, working from their notebooks and tablets at home and on their own time, rather than working from nine to five in an office. 

However, there is no denying the fact that accounting is still relevant in business organisations. There is visible demand for bookkeeping and accounting skills in job platforms. School leavers and working adults are still considering taking up Accountancy as their career, even though the interest has declined. 

What are some of the accounting tasks that generative AI tools like ChatGPT can do?

We cannot help but acknowledge that AI tools like ChatGPT are very useful. AI has made possible automation of mundane and routine bookkeeping tasks. Almost all accounting tasks, including payroll, tax, banking, and audits, have become automated. Accountancy and financial services are predicted to be among the industries that will experience the greatest level of transformation due to machine learning, AI, and automation over the next decade.

Many financial transactions are not entered manually by individuals but scanned by cashiers at the point of sale. The use of AI can enable us to detect unusual activities or deviations. Manually, we might not be able to detect all acts of fraud or misstatements along the line of the accounting process. The use of samples to check the entire population of financial data is inherent in audits. The larger the sample, the more comprehensive the audit. AI tools can enhance the quality of audits, making it possible to check a wider range of samples or even the entire population. 

ChatGPT might be able to help to analyse and interpret a set of typical financial statements such as the income statement, statement of financial position and statement of cash flow. They would be able to give some insights and explanations to help us make financial decisions. However, financial decisions are not just mechanical. We need to look at a myriad of factors before making any conclusive moves.

Technology will go on helping to enhance the accounting professional’s credentials as a trusted adviser. We can use AI to help us forecast and predict future trends based on historical data. But AI cannot replace accountants; we must be mindful to transform and embrace technology. 

Besides breaking free from repetitive tasks like document management, retrieval of data, and analysis, the finance team can focus more on taking up strategic and advisory responsibilities. 

Do NOT forget, AI cannot provide the necessary empathy and business advice! Accountants are and will still be relevant. The human agent is still the main decision-maker of the business.

Have you considered incorporating AI-related modules into the courses in Malaysia?

At AAT, we change the syllabus every three to four years. We just implemented the new Qualification 2022 last September. The upgraded syllabus encompasses four strategic themes: technology, ethics, communication, and sustainability. These skills and qualities have always been at the heart of the AAT accounting qualifications.

The new qualification is being introduced to ensure future accounting technicians have the skills and technical knowledge to ensure they are well prepared for changing business environments and to enhance their future career options.

The job of an accountant is changing rapidly. Many of the repetitive number-crunching jobs can be conducted by technology and automated computer software. This opens new and exciting opportunities for accountants to play a more strategic and business advisory role for their clients.

Qualifications 2022 is a new and exciting version of our suite of qualifications from AAT Level 1 through to AAT Level 4 Diploma in Professional Accounting, and it introduces some teaching and learning around cybersecurity, blockchain, AI, cloud computing and business analysis which will be valuable for students as they progress into their first jobs and subsequent accountancy career.

The development of this qualification has really honed in on how the role of the technician is moving forward, and the skills that will serve them now and in the future within a broad range of roles. It provides a broader skill set and aims to produce more well-rounded individuals, which is what employers are saying they want.

In Malaysia, has there been any impact on the demand for accounting talent?

According to ILMIA (Institute for Labour Market Information and Analysis), accounting is the top 4 skills in demand. And bookkeeping tops the range of accounting skills required by employers. Accounting is evergreen and is needed in every business organisation and industry all around the world. 

Malaysia needs 60,000 accountants and is projecting this number to be achieved by 2030. MIA reported recently that there are 38,500 accountants, an increase of 2.5% annually. This proves that the accounting profession is very resilient and is still necessary.

In our current post-pandemic era, we see a growth of SMEs. They are mushrooming in anticipation of a recovery in the economy after Covid-19. Malaysia’s economy is driven by SMEs which make up more than 90% of total business establishments. Being cost-sensitive, SMEs are looking out for para-accountants, or are better known as Accounting Technicians (AT). ATs would be able to provide bookkeeping, accounting, payroll and tax services to individuals and SMEs.

Despite the demand, accountancy is not as popular as it should be amongst high school leavers because of the misperception that accountancy is only for arts stream and business students. Moreover, students fear that accounting will be taken over by robots and AI. 

What’s next for AAT in Malaysia?

The time has arrived to recognise Accounting Technicians as a vital part of the accountancy profession. In pursuit of becoming a developed nation, we need to address the issue of unqualified accounting personnel carrying out basic accounting functions. We must emphasise professionalising these junior and mid-tier or para-level accountants.

AAT has earmarked Malaysia as one of our core markets and is committed to collaborating with the appropriate government departments, employers, regulators, and funders to produce a supply of professional accounting technicians.

There are many non-diploma graduates who are carrying out key roles in accounting and finance functions in both the private and public sectors. The Association of Accounting Technicians – now AAT – was established in 1980 to train students with accounting skills that are needed at different levels.

The Government, through various agencies such as PERKESO, HRD Corp and Yayasan Peneraju have provided support and funding for school leavers and working adults to acquire the AAT accounting qualifications. One of the AAT Training providers, for instance, System & Skills Training Concept (SSTC) has been involved actively in this venture by delivering the AAT qualification.  One of the criteria is job placement within the industry and so far, all the sponsored AAT graduates at SSTC have been offered jobs within one to two months of their AAT course completion.

There are in total seven (7) accredited AAT Training providers in the country; the number is growing as the AAT qualifications gain popularity and recognition.  School leavers, parents and working adults are encouraged to start and embark on AAT as your FIRST step towards being a qualified Accounting Technician, and subsequently, to become a Chartered Accountant or a Certified Public Accountant.