Why I left the Big Four in Korea to pursue a Masters in Singapore
Jaewon Han was working at Deloitte in his home country of Korea back in 2016. At that time, Jaewon says he knew “almost nothing” about the tax regime in Singapore. Now, barely 18 months later, he is based in Singapore and is an associate at KPMG, where he advises multi-national companies on local tax options for their businesses.
While he had several years of experience under his belt, he attributes his new position at KPMG to the skills he picked up from his Master’s degree – namely, the Master of Science (MSc) in Accountancy programme at Nanyang Business School (NBS), Singapore.
“Singapore taxation was one of the subjects I studied at NBS. I gained expertise in it and that led me directly into my new role when I graduated a few months ago,” says Jaewon.
But as a qualified accountant with a successful career at the Big Four, what motivated Jaewon to pursue a Masters? “My undergraduate degree was in urban administration, not accountancy. But I enjoyed working as an accountant and I wanted to gain more academic and practical knowledge in accountancy,” he says. “The CPA is very exam focused and I studied it online on my own, and I wanted additional training that was more interactive and holistic.”
When Jaewon began researching on the Masters programmes across Asia, it didn’t take long for him to arrive at NBS, which is part of Nanyang Technological University, as his top choice. The school is rated first in Asia for accounting research*, and the MSc Accountancy programme is the leading and most established accountancy programme in Singapore.
“NBS is renowned for its industry-oriented approach and academic rigour in accounting. I also liked the idea of studying in Singapore, which is developing itself as a hub for Asian accounting,” says Jaewon. “I got the best of both worlds: a leading university within a dynamic international financial centre.”
Jaewon enrolled in the one-year, full-time MSc Accountancy programme** and says he immediately enjoyed the way the programme was taught by NBS’ world-class faculty. “The professors open up every topic for discussion. They ask a lot of questions and encourage you to speak up – that’s very different to how most universities teach in Korea.”
“The professors use real-life examples, which in turn makes it easier to understand the underlying concepts,” Jaewon. “Many of them have industry experience at the Big Four or in-house and they share on-the-job stories to reinforce what they teach.”
The programme covers 12 courses, made up of three business-core and nine accountancy-core modules. “But don’t assume that you’ll just be memorising accounting standards during the programme,” says Jaewon. “In an NBS class, you talk about the intent behind the standards. You examine why they’re set up the way they are.”
Case study group discussions are a crucial element to the learning process at NBS. “These happen almost every week and you need to get actively involved. The more I talked with my classmates, the more I learned, because they helped spot gaps in my knowledge and identify issues that I’d never even thought of before.”
The diversity of the cohort makes for “fascinating discussions”, says Jaewon. Of the approximately 40 people admitted into the programme each year, about 75% are international students. “My classmates were from Singapore and all across Asia – China, Pakistan and Indonesia, for example – so I got new perspectives on accounting and was exposed to different cultures. This helps me now at KPMG because I work with a diverse range of colleagues and clients.”
Jaewon also enjoyed studying alongside people from different academic and professional backgrounds. While some of the other students had only recently completed their undergraduate degrees, others had accounting experience from the Big Four, multi-nationals and local Singaporean companies.
Accredited by the Singapore Accountancy Commission and the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, the programme is a pathway into the profession for people without prior knowledge in the field. After graduating they are eligible to take the exams for the Singapore CA qualification and become chartered accountants.
“For people like me, who are already CAs, the degree consolidates and then vastly improves our knowledge,” says Jaewon. “There were many concepts in tax and audit, for example, which I never really grasped while working in Korea. But they became very clear at NBS because of the quality of the teaching and because I had more time to discuss them.”
Besides technical skills, Jaewon’s communication skills also improved. “We had presentations during every module. My presentation skills got much better as did my English, which helps me now when I talk to clients.”
Jaewon finished his degree in February this year and is now realising his ambition of working in Singapore. “As soon as I arrived at NBS, I knew that I wanted to stay on in Singapore because it’s such a well-connected city for accountancy professionals and has so many opportunities.”
If you’re thinking of undertaking the programme yourself, Jaewon has the following advice: “The NBS professors will want you to have opinions, so do all the pre-reading before class and then express yourself in class. Be prepared to work very hard – it’s an intense programme, but it will give you new skills and it could change the course of your career as it has done for me.”
* Brigham Young University Accounting Research Rankings 2015 – all years.
** Also available as a two-year, part-time programme.