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Seven job postings, one career: How tax specialist flourishes
Currently a director at the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, Ms Sophia Gao has held many roles throughout her career. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

Embracing an array of roles, including those in service and policy, has expanded this Iras scholar’s experiences both personally and professionally

Although it has been nearly a decade, Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) scholar Sophia Gao still remembers the first high-stakes meeting she attended at the government agency.

It involved negotiating with a foreign tax authority over the allocation of profits for a multinational group with operations in multiple countries. Preparation spanned months.

“This complex undertaking demanded a sophisticated economic analysis and a commitment to scrutinising every detail because of the substantial impact it had on Singapore’s tax revenues,” the 35-year-old says.

The negotiation was one of many formative experiences that highlighted the intellectual rigour of her career at Iras.

Seven roles in 12 years

In 2011, after acquiring a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Chicago and a Master of Finance from Princeton University on the Iras Overseas Undergraduate Scholarship, Ms Gao found herself on the front line in the Corporate Tax Division at Iras, fielding queries from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

While initially apprehensive and “clueless about tax concepts” without an accountancy background, she soon discovered that her concerns were unwarranted.

During corporate tax season, phone queries came in at an intense pace – over 60 calls on certain days. Structured training, coupled with support from supervisors who took a proactive role in mentoring her, paved the way for a career enriched by diverse experiences.

After two rewarding years in the Corporate Tax Division, she transitioned to international tax where she liaised with multinational corporations (MNCs). She was subsequently rotated to the Ministry of Finance (MOF), Iras’ parent ministry.

During her secondment to the MOF, Ms Gao’s professional journey took on a global dimension.

Tasked with staying abreast of international developments, she had opportunities to travel for meetings conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Europe as well as the G20 Summit held in China in 2016.

“We were helping to shape new international tax standards and safeguard Singapore’s interests. Beyond the technical intricacies, I found myself challenged to view matters through the lens of strategy and diplomacy,” she reflects.

In 2017, Ms Gao returned to Iras for a policy role, followed by a stint in compliance strategy. She was later seconded to the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) in 2020 where she focused on grants and loans for companies.

She shared that EDB provided her with a viewpoint distinct from Iras.

“Companies entrusted us with their plans, offering us a better understanding of their business needs. It proved to be a valuable complement to my work at Iras,” she says.

Reflecting on the diverse nature of her work, she notes: “The tasks at EDB were exceptionally varied. One day we could be reviewing incentive schemes; the next day, we might be presenting a paper to secure funding for EDB’s grant programmes or participating in meetings with companies.”

Emphasising the interconnectedness of her experiences, she says: “It all fits together. Iras gathers taxes, MOF allocates them and EDB channels funds for Singapore’s economic development.”

Helping people understand tax matters

She has since returned to Iras and taken on the position of a director in the Corporate Tax Division. In her current role, she utilises predictive technology to identify high-risk returns. Yet, the human touch remains the most important factor in her line of work.

“There is a huge sense of gratification that comes from resolving long-standing issues with taxpayers,” she says.

Heading a team comprising 70 officers, she regularly communicates with taxpayers or their agents, conducts on-site visits and consults with stakeholders.

Inspired by her supervisors who ingrained the essence of teamwork as part of Iras’ ethos, Ms Gao aspires to cultivate a collaborative culture within her team where “there are no wrong questions”.

To aid tertiary students in grasping tax issues more easily, Ms Gao had initiated a programme – back in her earlier days while working in compliance strategy – to educate them in an approachable way.

“Our engagements with students revealed that when individuals appreciate the link between the government’s revenue and expenditure, they tend to be more open and willing to fulfil their tax responsibilities, even in the context of a gig economy,” she remarks.

Ms Gao and her team of four officers also collaborated with the Ministry of Education to craft educational materials tailored for students ranging from upper primary to junior college levels.

“There is a huge sense of gratification that comes from resolving long-standing issues with taxpayers.”

Ms Sophia Gao, recipient of the Iras Overseas Undergraduate Scholarship

Reflecting on her career, Ms Gao notes: “Being able to rotate across different departments has been instrumental in helping me to figure out my strengths and interests, especially in the early stages.

“The scholarship I received from Iras helped shape my intellectual outlook while the tremendous exposure and learning opportunities at work – this ‘school of life’ – were instrumental to both my personal and professional growth.”

Contemplating her multifaceted journey, Ms Gao says: “What continues to motivate me is the expansive terrain of learning that Iras offers.

“My career, spanning diverse roles, now encompasses a seventh ‘job’ in a span of 12 years. Even as I ventured for secondments to MOF and EDB, the anchor of my professional voyage was Iras.”

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