Graham Stirling CA on life in Singapore
Graham Stirling CA had never visited Singapore before moving there – now he can’t imagine being anywhere else. Rachel Ingram discovers how the Grant Thornton Assurance Director took a gamble that paid off in Asia.
Singapore couldn’t be more different to Scotland, but for Glaswegian Graham Stirling CA this is part of its appeal. What the country lacks in decent football and Scottish humour, it makes up for with a lively expat lifestyle, diverse food scene and unique work opportunities.
What began for him as a two-year secondment in south-east Asia is now seven years and counting, and is proving to be the adventure of a lifetime.
Rewinding 15 years, it was an accountancy class at school that inspired Stirling to enter the industry. He completed a degree in accounting and finance at the University of Strathclyde before joining the Glasgow office of international accounting and advisory firm Grant Thornton. From the outset, Stirling hoped his career would lead him overseas. “I’ve always had an interest in travel. Every year in my appraisal, I would tell my line manager that I was working towards a secondment somewhere,” he says.
In fact, travel has defined some of Stirling’s key life moments. It was during a post-graduation trip that he met his now wife, who was studying and living in Dublin at the time. When she graduated, and Stirling completed his ICAS training contract, the pair found themselves pondering the question – Glasgow, Dublin or the unknown?
It’s not often you speak to an expat who says they’re here for two years and they stay for only two years – they usually end up staying for 25
The latter was destined to win and, after his wife received a job opportunity in Singapore, Stirling was offered a two-year secondment at Foo Kon Tan, the Singapore member firm of Grant Thornton International. “I’d be lying if I said that we’d always had this fascination with going to Singapore,” he admits. “It just seemed an exciting opportunity to do something different.” So, in 2013, they packed their bags and jetted off to the Garden City – so named because it is said to be the greenest city in Asia – for the first time, not to visit, but to move in.
Stirling found the transition to working in the city state relatively simple, thanks to his ICAS qualification. “It’s like having a second passport because it’s internationally recognised,” he says. “It’s the oldest accounting qualification and it’s incredibly respected among other professional accounting bodies.”
When his secondment was coming to an end in early 2015, the local member firm left the Grant Thornton network and the duo found themselves at that familiar crossroads – Glasgow, Dublin or stay in Singapore? The decision was greatly simplified when Stirling was given the opportunity to build a new Grant Thornton firm in Singapore.
“I had five years’ experience and all of a sudden I was being asked if I would help set up a new firm, which was bizarre,” he says. “We’ve taken the firm from effectively one person to more than 100 in five years. Now, we’re a full-service office with all of the service lines you’d expect from a major accounting firm.”
Stirling recently obtained his Singaporean qualifications and is now leading and signing his own portfolio of statutory audits. “It has been an exciting opportunity for me,” he says. “And that has stemmed from ICAS, which has a reciprocal relationship with its Singaporean equivalent, ISCA. That has helped me to become a registered public accountant and, hopefully, go on to become a partner in Singapore.”
Stirling has kept close ties to the ICAS network throughout his career, being recognised as one of its Top 35 CAs under 35 in 2016 and one of the Top 100 Young CAs in 2018. He has also taken on the role of Chairman of the ICAS Singapore Community Members’ Committee, which he says has strengthened the sense of fellow feeling among CAs in the city.
“When I first came over, there wasn’t really a community. We’d have an event every once in a while, when the President or CEO was passing through Singapore, but there was always the desire for more,” he says.
“We have a young committee and it’s been really good fun. We host about three big events a year. It’s brought some people together in a professional sense, while for others, it’s about having interaction with other people from the UK. A lot of close friendships have arisen from it.”
East meets west
Having that feeling of familiarity can be important, as living in a city vastly different from home has its pros and cons, Stirling admits. “Professionally, Singapore is an easy and transparent place to do business. It’s the gateway into Asia and there’s a huge amount of opportunity that comes with that,” he says. “But like a lot of places in Asia, work-life balance is challenging. As Singapore is an international hub, you’ll start the day interacting with those in Asia- Pacific, then in the afternoon you’re on calls with Europe, and as you’re trying to go to bed, the US comes alive. It’s fast-paced but it’s worth it.”
From a personal standpoint, the excellent expat lifestyle and strong social scene can be addictive, he admits: “It’s not often that you speak to an expat who says they’re here for two years and they stay for only two years. They’ll usually end up staying for 25.”
While he revels in the business opportunities, it’s the food that has Stirling hooked. “If you’re a foodie, Singapore is absolutely fantastic. It’s such a multicultural country, a real fusion of food cultures,” he says. “I’ve really adapted to local food. I’m no longer scared of unusual things such as fish head soup or chicken feet. I arrived a much skinnier man!”
The doors that a secondment will open for you are numerous. Getting out of your comfort zone in a culture that you’re not familiar with will test you and help you grow both professionally and personally. Embrace the opportunity.
The city is also a great place to raise a family, as Stirling discovered when his first child was born nearly two years ago. “Singapore’s an incredibly safe place and it’s really clean. It’s an expensive city but salaries are competitive and income tax is relatively low, so it works itself out. You’ve got a really good education system, good infrastructure and the public transport is so good you’d never need to own a car.”
But it’s not all rosy. “The one thing I struggled with is sport. I’m a big football fan but the quality of football in Singapore isn’t very high so I have to tune into sport back home in the UK,” he says, adding: “Singaporeans sometimes struggle with the Scottish banter. The Singaporean culture is a little more reserved and conservative and sometimes I get bemused looks when I try to give locals my best Glaswegian chat!”
Although Singapore is tiny – at 280 square miles, it’s not much larger than the Isle of Man – one bonus of living in such an active transport hub is the proximity to other cultures, which suits travel-addict Stirling perfectly. “Pre-lockdown, it was so simple to travel around the region. If you want to disappear for the weekend to Vietnam or Thailand or Malaysia, it’s really easy to do that,” he says.
But for now, Stirling is settled to life in Singapore and is committed to helping his company ride out the Covid-19 storm. “We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve always invested in technology, which has kept our business continuity going,” he says. Despite the pandemic, he believes fellow CAs should never be put off emigrating for new opportunities: “The doors that a secondment will open for you are numerous. Getting out of your comfort zone in a culture that you’re not familiar with will test you and help you grow both professionally and personally. Embrace the opportunity. I’ve never regretted it.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of CA magazine.