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SALIHIN ABANG C.A.(M)- FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN OF SALIHIN SHARIAH ADVISORY

SALIHIN Advisory has developed a wholesome approach to business, based on ethical values, commercial excellence, and commitment to social responsibility and good governance. Would you care to share with our readers your vision of a twenty-first-century business in a world dominated by tech revolution?

SALIHIN was founded in 2002. SALIHIN has emerged as a brand under which independent group member firms of SALIHIN International LLP (SALIHIN International) operate and provide professional services in the areas of Shari’a advisory and education, audit and assurance, corporate finance, taxation, financial reporting, digital consultancy and corporate advisory. SALIHIN International is the entity with which all the member firms of SALIHIN Shariah Advisory are affiliated. Its headquarter is in Malaysia, with offices and network of partners across the globe.

Since our founding, SALIHIN story has evolved to a level deep-rooted in Shari’a. This sets a strong foundation upon which we aspire to be the best global provider of Shari’a- value-based services and education. Alhamdulillaah, we are on course, as we internalise and implement human governance in accordance with Shari’a values to deliver quality services. Our diverse professionals deploy a wide array of holistic capabilities to unreservedly serve our clients locally and internationally. Our Shari’a advisory and education services are offered by SALIHIN Shariah Advisory Sdn. Bhd. (private limited company), a network member firm of SALIHIN International. It is an approved Shari’a advisory firm by the Securities Commission Malaysia.

SALIHIN goes beyond conventional approaches to help organisations and individuals create sustainable and meaningful value. Leveraging on our experienced international and local Shari’a advisers as well as drawing on the global knowledge and resources of SALIHIN member firms, we provide Shari’a advisory and education services. This covers Islamic capital market advisory, Islamic banking, fund and wealth management, takaful, zakat, waqf, Islamic corporate reporting, Shari’a auditing and assurance, Shari’a review, Shari’a research and publication, fintech, and Islamic finance education and training.

SALIHIN is cognizant of the impact of the exponential technological advancement on the present and future business landscape. Advancement in technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, work processes automation and data analytics, can significantly alter service offering, business model, business process, and employee engagement among others. At SALIHIN, we embraced these disruptions. Currently, we are automating our work processes, self-developing systems and data analytics applications for customer and business intelligence.

Our vision is to provide the Islamic finance industry with digital solutions relevant to the future ecosystem of the industry. For instance, SALIHIN Academy has recently launched its Islamic finance education mobile app to facilitate tapping into Islamic finance knowledge anywhere and at any time. In addition, we have an accounting system purposely designed to assist Muslim businesses in the Islamic finance ecosystem to accurately determine the zakat and waqf with ease. Moving forward, we continue to reimagine the future with cutting-edge technologies to provide solutions to the needs of stakeholders in the industry.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities in Islamic finance? How, in your opinion, can humans remain relevant despite the huge advancements in technology?

The Islamic finance industry is gradually been driven by financial technologies (FinTech) affecting fundraising, payments systems, infrastructure, operation and risk management, data security, monetisation, and customer interface. These technological advancements are growing at a pace seemingly impossible to comprehend. Not only that, the displacement of human-related activities through automation and artificial intelligence raises questions about the relevancy of humans in the future. AI-related applications have begun codifying and automating Shari’a advisory roles. Robo advisors automates routine financial advisory services and tasks of Shari’a advisors. For me, these offer opportunities for such advisors to focus on high-value Shari’a advisory activities. However, the challenge is for the Islamic finance industry practitioners to embrace technology and build the necessary competence to remain future-fit.

Notwithstanding the relevance of technology in Islamic finance, experienced scholars are required to provide further guidance to the industry to ensure Islamic finance operations and practices are in accordance with the principles and rules of Shari’a. Technology will help to spur development but human capital remains relevant to ensure that Shari’a issues are addressed with a proper ijtihad process (scholars deducing a fatwa in guiding practices). Hence, automation and robotism despite their importance does not make humans irrelevant. Rather, a better human-machine interaction is envisaged.

SALIHIN Shariah Advisory has emerged as a premier provider of Shari’a advisory services in a fiercely competitive market. This is even more remarkable, given that you are based in Malaysia, which is arguably the most advanced Islamic financial market. How did you manage to achieve such a huge success in a very short span of time?

We are proud to be recognised as one of the best Shari’a advisory firms. It is indeed a blessing from Allah SWT. As we aspire to be the best global Shari’a advisory services provider, it is a huge responsibility to prove ourselves to the world through providing high-quality Shari’a advisory services. The key to success is the sincerity in promoting a Shari’a-compliant way of doing business. We regard this as a form of jihad towards upholding the Islamic way of life in business and finance. Behind this success is the dedicated and competent team of SALIHIN, congratulations to all of them.

As a continuation of the previous question, won a GIFA at the last Global Islamic Finance Awards held in Cape Town. How have these achievements contributed to your company’s further success?

Last year, we received the award of the Best Emerging Islamic Shari’a Advisory Firm. This year we received GIFA 2019 Award for the Best Islamic Finance Training Provider. Honestly, these awards were not consciously chased but rather came as a fruit of our genuine pursuit of excellence in whatever we do. However, the awards gave us additional motivation and boosted our confidence, to maintain our commitment and achievement to be the best at what we are offering. Also, the awards further strengthens our brand positioning through global recognition and awareness of our existence and capabilities. Finally, the awards have increased the stakeholders’ trust in us, especially our clients, as our track record is proven.

What are the short-term and long-term plans of, in the Islamic financial services industry?

The short-term plan is to position ourselves in the Islamic financial industry locally and internationally. On the domestic scene, we are actively promoting our comprehensive advisory services, executive development programs and publications via our online bookstore (www.iqrakitab.com.my). As for the international market, we are currently focusing on advisory services and introducing professional qualifications in Islamic Finance to the targeted regions around the globe.

For the long-term plan, we have actually a lot in the pipeline. We want to be one of the main players ensuring that Malaysia remains as one of the important hubs for Islamic finance development. We foresee more collaborations with other organisations worldwide especially with countries where Islamic finance is still at a growing stage. We also plan to introduce artificial intelligence and blockchain-related products and services for the Islamic finance industry. On Islamic finance education, our plan is to establish SALIHIN Private Higher Learning Institution/University, for which the foundation is currently being built in the SALIHIN Academy and Salihin Business School.

On a personal note, would you care sharing with our readers the inspiring story of Salihin Abang?

One of the most difficult things to do is seeing and writing one’s story as inspiring. Nevertheless, with all humility and humbleness, I will share mine from grass to grace journey. This covers my entrepreneurship and professional life. I hope this may be inspiring to others.

I was born and raised in Kampung Lintang, a village in Kuching, Sarawak. We had no entrepreneur in the family, so you can imagine me thinking I cannot become one either. Shackled by that imagination, I enrolled into a religious school. I later found myself in an accounting degree stream without any initial idea of what I want to become. Importantly, the religious school inculcated in me, what I called a religious filtration system. It guided my thoughts, actions, and behaviour. It is only by seeing things based on that religious filter, that one can achieve success and happiness here and in the hereafter. Therefore, by the time I graduated, I made up my mind to become an entrepreneur in accountancy. An entrepreneur whose success hinges on his positive impact on those around him, the ummah and the society. After graduation, I obtained the needed practical experience required to begin the accountancy entrepreneurship journey in 2002.

When I started SALIHIN in 2002, I did not have any financial capital, no employee, no office, just a very small shared office space, with my laptop and no printer. The most important asset I had was my brain. From that humble beginning, our firm is now one of the fastest-growing and largest home-nurtured firms in Malaysia. The road was not easy. At some points, friends would boldly say to me, “you can never be good, you can never do great things, you can never succeed, and you will be bankrupt in six (6) months.” During that time, you can imagine how I felt.

At that moment the filtration system crucially resonated in me that rizq is from Allah. As khalifa of Allah, I have to work hard with steadfastness to please Allah, not people. In the end, Allah’s will prevails, not the doomsayers’ wish. Allah never forsakes His khalifa. Alhamdulillaah, we have made it and soaring upwards. Today, the gains from that extend beyond the firm.

From a Managing Partner of SALIHIN firm to steering the affairs of the entire accountancy profession, and being the President of the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA), the sole regulator of the accounting profession in Malaysia.

From SALIHIN to public listed companies and government agencies. I am contributing my expertise in the governance and management of both public listed and prominent non-public listed companies as well as government and state statutory bodies. I have been appointed as Independent and Non-Executive Director and Corporate Advisor. In these capacities, I assume the board and committee membership responsibilities in audit, risk, investment, sustainability and corporate reporting.

For the progress of Islamic economy and finance, I am involved with the Malaysian Islamic Chamber of Commerce (DPIM).

The professional story is tied with my vision to bridge the gap between the industry and academia. Accountancy-related subjects are practical in nature. As such, graduates must be relevant to the industry. Consequently, I began contributing to academia as an industry advisor to universities covering bachelor, master and doctoral degree levels. I was appointed as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Maritime Business and Management of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) and Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz School of Accountancy at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM).

To practically bridge the gap between theory and practice of accountancy, I led the establishment of Teaching Accountancy Firm (TAF) in four local universities, including UMT, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Universiti Kuala Lumpur (UniKL) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). The TAF brings to light the concepts of 2u2i and 3u1i by the government and universities. This is the first time that TAF became part of the former Minister of Higher Education’s initiative on how industry and universities can work together for the betterment of accounting students and achieve nation-building. The TAF was eventually recognised by the Ministry of Higher Education as having one of the best and most innovative curriculum designs and study programmes in 2017 and won the Best Academia-Industry Collaboration Award 2017.

In recognition of my leadership and significant national and international contributions to both industry and academia, especially in the areas of audit and assurance, accounting, taxation and business advisory, UMT conferred on me an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Management in 2018.

All my initiatives and contributions are guided by the filtration system. The rewards are credited to Allah. My story indicates my journey from being a nobody to somebody. I hope this humble story is inspiring. The key message is to pursue your dreams in the shade of Allah; He will never forsake you.

Malaysia has obviously been on the forefront of the global Islamic financial services industry. However, lately, other countries, especially neighbouring Indonesia, have started playing significant roles in the development of Islamic banking and finance industry. Do you think Malaysia should feel threatened by the progress of other competing countries?

Well, we have to acknowledge the competition not only from Indonesia specifically but also from around the globe. We do not feel threatened by this development. It is a healthy competition and we view it as a positive progression for Islamic finance as it is parallel with the principles of Maqasid al-Shari’a, which ultimately promotes maslahah and benefits to the ummah. Malaysia has developed a robust Islamic finance framework, which is seen as one of the competitive edges that Malaysia possesses as compared to the other players.

Nonetheless, we welcome other players to contribute to the continuous development to bring the industry on the same level as conventional finance. The future is all about collaboration to strategically tap into synergy. For example, SALIHIN is collaborating with STEI SEBI (School of Islamic Economics) in Indonesia on Islamic finance education, among others. We welcome such collaborations worldwide. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We believe in going together to elevate the industry worldwide for the benefit of close to 1.6 billion Muslim ummah worldwide.

SDGs are the talk of this decade. What in your view can be the role of FinTech, more specifically Islamic FinTech in achieving the SDGs?

FinTech is getting better recognition lately as nowadays people are moving towards digitalisation in almost everything. Proven it is easier, faster, convenient and efficient. Fundamentally, advancements in Fintech are for a better world for all. Undoubtedly, the SDGs are in line with the Maqasid al Shari’a, upon which Islamic finance is built. Hence, Islamic Fintech. For the fact that most of the 17 SDGs relate to finance and money, Islamic Fintech plays critical role in the realisation of the SDGs. Therefore, for Islamic Fintech, I will focus on financial inclusion.

Islamic Fintech makes it possible for us to reach both the unbanked and underbanked at an improved cost. Digital technologies drive operational and infrastructure costs, allowing the Islamic financial institutions to offer innovative products at lower or even zero costs. Also, with the rise of Islamic Fintech solutions such as mobile banking and fundraising-related platforms, financial intermediation that does not add value for consumers are reduced and, in some cases, eliminated. This further makes it possible to include the financially excluded. With financial inclusion, Islamic Fintech plays a better role in poverty alleviation, reducing inequality in access to finance, empowering financial decision through improved information provision, among others.

On our part, our SALIHIN intelligent accounting software (SPS) was developed to assist in poverty eradication. Its zakat feature ensures that the right amount of business zakat is determined and paid. On the other hand, the waqf feature sensitises and enables Muslim businessmen and women to create and make provisions for cash waqf. These two features enhance zakat and waqf collection by the various zakat and waqf organisations in Malaysia. Our Teaching Accountancy Firm (TAF) utilises our SPS Lite with Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN) for microfinance entrepreneurs, in the education sector. The TAF is a joint collaboration with four universities to produce industry-fit graduates. This makes it possible to reach out to student micro-entrepreneurs who could not have access to finance. Finally, we have also developed a mobile app to facilitate Islamic social finance through individuals’ contributions in the form of sadaqah, infaq, zakat, and waqf. The app also facilitates our green-waqf initiative. These digital initiatives are instrumental in poverty alleviation and implementation of other SDGs.

As a hands-on Chairman, how do you motivate your team? Please share with our readers some of the leadership secrets and your personal leadership approach.

Personally, I see every team member as a leader. This goes back to our original status as “Khalifah” on earth. The secret is to discover the khalifah prospects of each team member as we are made of distinct characters. This requires assessing the strengths, weaknesses, capabilities of the individual to determine the kind of khalifah he or she would be. The ability to recognise this is crucial as everybody is born a leader, but with different leadership styles in different situations.

My leadership styles evolved from one form to the other based on distinct situations, adopting the one that best meets the needs of the situation, ranging from visionary, affirmative to participative. As a visionary leader, I saw the need to setup the firm, thought about its direction and what opportunities could be tapped to move it beyond tomorrow. This style was necessary at a time when the firm needed a new direction with a sense of purpose to guide and move the dedicated staff towards a new set of shared vision and values.

Presently, our leadership style is defused from top to middle and to the frontline with a special focus on acts and activities. The key to our success is to empower every team member as a leader. We believe that human endeavour needs a unifying and driving force for success and that driving force is ultimately traced to good leadership. Though every one of us in some capacity, sometimes, somewhere is a leader, what matters more is ensuring that each team member becomes a good leader.

It is said that outstanding organisational performances rests on the motivation and actions of the middle and frontlines. At SALIHIN, these leaders and their subordinates are empowered and always asked for their direct inputs. This provides valuable inputs to the top management in setting strategic directions and carving out policies to best serve clients and other stakeholders. The significance of seeing oneself as a leader instead of an employee motivates team members, as they feel they belong as leaders rather than mere followers.

Who has inspired you the most and how? How has this inspiration developed you in the Islamic finance industry?

As Muslims, our role model is the Prophet (pbuh), his companions and Muslim scholars and leaders. Those are our sources of inspiration as they have demonstrated high level of value, ethics, competency, leadership and trust, with their compliance in behaviour and conduct.

My next source of inspiration is my parents. My father was honest and meticulous in his duties. He never misused his position for selfish interest, withstanding peer pressure and the opportunities to do so. This further inspires me to deliver services without compromising my integrity and professionalism. From my surviving mother, I am inspired to keep striving in the industry. She does not give up on a cause worthy of pursuing for humanity. Her dedication and hardworking push me to never give up, to do my best, and to give the best to the Islamic finance industry.

Finally, the current leaders in Islamic finance are also inspiring us in our Islamic finance journey. We learn from them goal setting, and dealing with the challenges and issues facing the industry. As mentioned elsewhere, I believe in healthy competition by complementing one another. Together, through joint effort and collaboration we can take the Islamic finance industry to the next level. At the end of the day, it is about learning and progressing for a meaningful growth of the Islamic finance industry.

Shari’a compliance or social responsibility? What would you pick and why?

It is a tough question. As a khalifah of ALLAH SWT, we are responsible to take care of each other, as we are brothers and sisters in Islam. In doing so, we need to observe the tenets of Shari’a in every aspect of our daily life; i.e. conduct, thinking, speaking, intention etc. Once an individual practice and observes the Shari’a requirements, he or she has upheld the responsibility to himself or herself as well as to all of Allah’s creations. As such, I believe both are important, being a responsible member of society and a good Muslim. However, if I have to choose, I would go for Shari’a compliance because by default social responsibility is embodied in it as it is meant to realise Maqasid al Shari’a.

What would be your message to the young professionals in the financial services industry as a whole?

My message to the young professionals is to have a clear vision and mission in their life be it social or professional. Determination and hard work with high moral values in the industry are very important. We have seen banks collapsing in the conventional domain due to unethical conducts and behaviours. The young professionals are the future captains of the Islamic finance industry. It is, therefore, imperative for them to uphold the trust bestowed on them with integrity and ethics.

This industry is knowledge-based. As such, the young generation should be well equipped with good education and professional qualifications relevant to the industry. With technology greatly affecting the industry, we need innovative ways of doing things, which requires new skill sets. To remain relevant and be the professionals who drive the industry, the younger generation must keep learning, unlearning and relearning to build their competencies and capabilities. They have to be self-directed learners and take advantage of technological advancements opportunities offered to build the necessary skills. Finally, I advise them to be consultative and always opt for the best because one day they will be making important decisions for the industry. They have to cultivate the spirit of teamwork and take ownership of their work. They have to be passionate and keep on learning from their leaders and mentors.

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