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Young auditor leverages AI in auditing for the nation
Associate audit officer Paxton Ong uses the programming skills he learnt on the job to streamline audit work and processes carried out by the Auditor-General’s Office. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

A strong believer of tech, forward-thinking AGO scholar aspires to be at the forefront of change in enhancing public accountability

During a time of rapid technological advancements, business and accountancy graduate Paxton Ong often wondered: “Will AI steal my job?”

“While I was studying accounting, there was always a niggling fear that auditing jobs would be replaced by AI,” says the 25-year-old.

However, just six months into his career as an associate audit officer at the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO), Mr Ong is heartened to know that the organisation is not cutting staff but is ensuring its auditors stay ahead of the curve through cutting-edge initiatives.

Digitalisation and automation at AGO

Amid emerging challenges such as cyber security threats, economic uncertainties and public health crises, AGO plays a vital role in identifying and addressing risks to safeguard the financial integrity of government operations.

Since 2018, Singapore’s national auditor has made a concerted effort to expand its use of data analytics tools and techniques as well as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies to automate AGO’s systems and processes.

In particular, it set up the Digital Innovation Office (DIO) to examine how auditors can use analytical skills and tools to identify financial data abnormalities.

The office also helps to upskill AGO officers’ proficiency in data analytics and automation capabilities through courses and on-the-job training. It has since expanded to include new positions such as data scientist and data analyst as well.

Next, the AGO will be looking into other integral aspects such as sustainability reporting and how to integrate these into its audits of the different ministries and statutory boards.

The transformation at AGO has been significant. Mr Ong recalls that when he was doing his internship at AGO during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, things were still done manually using paper forms and physical transactions.

Since he joined as a full-time officer in July 2023, he has noticed that things had changed.

“It’s all e-files now. Our working papers are also electronic,” he notes.

Taking charge of his journey

Mr Ong remembers stumbling upon the AGO Auditing Service Scholarship during his downtime in the army bunk while doing his national service. Recently graduated from his alma mater Victoria Junior College, Mr Ong had been working a property leasing job, and got interested in investing. He started learning how to read financial statements and even attained the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualification. His newfound interest led him to pursue business and accountancy studies at Nanyang Technological University, and to apply for the scholarship.

To Mr Ong, AI is far from being a threat. In fact, he shares that AI has also opened up more opportunities for junior accountants like him by automating mundane tasks and freeing them to take on more advisory roles.

Having picked up programming skills such as Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and basic Python on his own, Mr Ong finds that AGO often empowers him to manage his own projects and lets him voice his suggestions.

“I enjoy the autonomy I’m given to be in control of my timelines and progress,” he says.

With a strong emphasis on professional development, AGO officers are fully sponsored to attain relevant certifications, select master’s degrees as well as the membership fees of such certifications (subject to a cap).

Auditors are rotated to conduct different audits such as financial statements audits and selective audits of different agencies. They can also be deployed to specialist hubs such as the IT Audit Department and Digital Innovation Office for exposure purposes.

In addition, opportunities to learn new tools such as robotic process automation (RPA), Tableau and Python are also available through workshops. Mr Ong shares that officers can soon expect to receive training in new areas such as financial forensics as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG).

Select officers are now attached to private audit firms for periods of six months to gain exposure to audit beyond the public sector.

“Every year, as the Auditor-General presents its report to the President and the public, I feel proud to be part of a team that has made a nationwide impact.”

Mr Paxton Ong, recipient of the AGO Auditing Service Scholarship

For Mr Ong, good mentorship and AGO’s collaborative culture played a pivotal role in his development.

Once, when he could not access data for his project, his reviewing officer Serene and buddy Dewei advised him on the other data sets he could use and alternative ways to conduct the audit test.

“My colleagues were not involved in my project at all, but they still took time amid their own busy schedules to guide me,” he says.

The dynamism of public sector auditing

Having obtained a coveted first class honours and done internships at major banks, Mr Ong could have had his pick of the best private sector companies.

However, he is adamant that public sector accounting is still his best choice.

What excites Mr Ong most about his job at AGO, an independent organ of state, is the ability to rotate to a different group or agency every few years. So far, Mr Ong has been in the audit teams auditing the Land Transport Authority, Ministry of Health and GIC.

Like many other civil servants, he draws a strong sense of purpose from his work and looks for more than just prestige in his job.

“Every year, as the Auditor-General presents its report to the President and the public, I feel proud to be part of a team that has made a nationwide impact,” he says.

“AGO offers an exciting career that is at the forefront of auditing, looking at how to identify and mitigate risks,” adds Mr Ong.

“It is a great place for those who want to learn about how the government works and help put the public’s money towards running a well-functioning democracy.”

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