ProspectsASEAN talks to Daud Vicary Abdullah, former President & CEO of the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF), to discuss about the field of Islamic Finance and his views on what this dynamic industry has to offer in terms of the region’s growth and graduate career opportunities. He also shares valuable career advice with young ASEAN talents who are interested to embark on a career in this blooming sector. Daud is currently retired, but is still doing advisory work through his company – DVA Consulting.
Let’s begin with your story and how you actually got started in the industry of finance. Specifically, in Islamic finance. What got you interested in the Islamic finance banking industry and how did you arrive in this sector?
I often describe myself as being an accidental tourist. About 25 years ago, I was running my own consulting company, which specialised in process reengineering. One day, I received a sub-contract to assist a Malaysian bank, which was implementing a new IT system, and my job was to help reengineer processes around centralized accounting and centralized banking.
I was working on this project for about a month when I was called to a meeting with the steering committee, who advised that they had been asked by the Central Bank of Malaysia to consider opening up an “Islamic window”. This was in the early 1990s and at that point I had not heard of Islamic finance or Islamic banking, let alone an “Islamic Window!”. However, that didn’t stop them from asking me to look into this matter and explore how this could be achieved for the bank. Being a diligent individual, I went to find somebody working in Bank Islam (the first Islamic bank in Malaysia), where they gladly shared with me their knowledge about the subject over the next few months.
My interest in Islamic Finance was aroused because it was an alternative system, and I was intrigued by the concept of Islamic “duty of care” and responsibility for humanity and everything on the planet. From then onwards, I became increasingly interested in Islamic finance and started reading about the subject to further refine my understanding. A year later, I found myself in a position to convert to Islam. As it happened I ended up marrying a Malaysian who was on the project.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s when I came back to Malaysia and began working on full-time assignments. From the year 2002 onwards, I was involved in various consulting roles and, after several years, went on to become a partner at Deloitte. Subsequently, I became the first managing director of Hong Leong Islamic Bank, and not long after, I moved on to the Asian Finance Bank. I then returned to Deloitte consulting in an advisory role, which eventually expanded into an opportunity to lead them as their global partner in Islamic finance. Finally, I was asked to run the global University of Islamic Finance INCEIF.
This concludes the story of how I became an accidental tourist.
What are the qualities that firms usually seek in a candidate for Islamic finance related roles?
The answer to this is not as many as one would think. A given would have to be to have a basic understanding of the subject matter. What is more important I think is attitude. Their attitude to learn more and attitude of “ how do I apply this knowledge”? Let me explain that a little bit further. Yes you do have to be confident, you do have to be develop some skills. You do need to understand what the products are and how the system works. That’s a given. However, I think over the last 6 or 7 years there has been an increasing need for young people to actually demonstrate more in terms of there softer skills – interaction, presentations, decision making, entrepreneurial skills.
I believe that it is a fairly fluid situation. There isn’t a checklist of 20 things that you have to do, because that checklist of 20 things you have to do today will be different by tomorrow. It’s changing rapidly so it’s more of an attitudinal thing – developing self-confidence, building your professional network, managing risks, communication, and entrepreneurial skills, rather than focusing too much on the technical knowledge.
I think the next question is, what is your take on the prospect of Islamic finance in ASEAN? How does a region of such diverse culture and systems impact the work that you do?
I think the diversity actually is a great help. Many people are often fixated with the idea that Islamic finance is only for Muslims. However, that’s definitely not the case. In fact, when you look at the development of Islamic finance in Malaysia, which is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, Islamic Finance is a very viable alternative solution.
When I was running an Islamic bank here, the majority of our Islamic banking customers where ethnically Chinese. And why did they choose Islamic Finance? Well, it offered them a better deal, better products, better service, better pricing, and ultimately, better returns. So, it was purely a business decision.
The challenge is articulating the value proposition to everybody. Presenting Islamic finance to a non-Muslim audience. Using a lot of Arabic terminology and interspersing it with “Allahuakhbar” every 3 seconds doesn’t help. It’s really about how you articulate the story and speak to the audiences listening.
So, I think with the diversity in ASEAN, there is plenty of opportunity for Islamic finance to be seen as a particular asset class. Additionally, it shares common values related to sustainability, responsibility, ethics and transparency, all of which are values that appeal, no matter what religion you are from because they are core values which everyone can agree on.
What moves the market for Islamic finance? What factors come to play and how can we accelerate the growth of Islamic finance services across the ASEAN region?
There are two words I would use here – “Perception” and “Liquidity”.
1. Perception – the association of Islamic Finance and Islam negatively in various ways. Predominantly, those perceptions are wrong. Thus it is a challenge for us to properly educate the masses to change those perceptions.
2. Liquidity – to ensure you have the money in the right place and at the right time in order to facilitate the business. Thus, I would define Islamic Finance as an efficient and effective mobilisation of capital for the benefit of the real economy.
The real economy is the economy that creates jobs, makes things, builds assets, and this is underlying and fundamental to the dynamics of a country’s economy. This is in contrast to financial economy, which revolves around financial institutions trading with each other and where there are no underlying assets or intrinsic economic value, other than one entity gaining profits and the other experiencing losses.
What are the major firms that compete in the Islamic Finance sector in this region?
Typically, there are the major banks (local and regional), insurance institutions, and asset management companies. Interestingly, we should take a closer look at professional services firms, namely the Big 4, accounting firms, and consulting firms. Another area that is increasingly important and popular now is crowdfunding. An increasing development of FinTech is also providing us the greatest potential for growth, whereby we link FinTech with Islamic Finance.
It’s not just about getting a job in the financial institution anymore. It’s now more on the notion of “where can I create an impact?” and the impacts are likely to be created in professional services firms, advisory, crowdfunding, and FinTech. We can see a number of companies that are starting up and utilising Islamic Finance as the weapon of choice to achieve different goals and produce impact.
Of all the locations in the world, what made you relocate to the region and what do you think are the opportunities the region has to offer?
As I’ve explained previously, I was an accidental tourist. Initially, I came to the region because there was work where I could apply my skills and make a living – that’s an honest and direct answer. However, as I built up my knowledge on Islamic Finance over the years, and with Malaysia being in a world-leading position, it makes perfect sense for me to stay in the region. This is the centre of the universe as far as Islamic Finance is concerned. This is where the thought leaders and experts are based. Most importantly, I have created a new career for myself that would not have been possible had I not been in ASEAN.