Curtis Ng, Regional Tax Partner-in-Charge, Northern Region, at KPMG China, spends a lot of time encouraging the next generation of tax professionals to take a broader perspective and be future-ready. He talks to Nicky Burridge from his Beijing office about his long tax career and the resilience of the Mainland China market
Photography by Stefen Chow
Relocating to Beijing in the early stages of a global pandemic would be seen as a challenge by many, but Curtis Ng was undaunted. “When I first arrived, there were no people on the streets. I remember going to the centre of Beijing and all the shops were closed,” says Ng, Regional Tax Partner-in-Charge, Northern Region, at KPMG China.
He was only approached about taking on the role the week before Chinese New Year. Two weeks later, he was in Beijing.
He explains that moving to the city was a big decision, as he had always worked in Hong Kong and, while he was excited about the possibility of relocating, he did not want to disrupt his three children in the middle of the school term. “Luckily, I had the support of my wife and, within 24 hours, we had agreed that I would go,” he says, adding that they decided his wife and two sons, aged seven and 13, would join him in August, when his daughter, 18, headed to the United Kingdom for university.
Unsurprisingly, many people considered it to be a bad time to relocate, but not Ng. “I always take a very positive view. If I had come to Beijing during a normal business period, I may not have had the luxury of being in the office without any interruptions. Because I was in the office by myself, I was able to really focus on what changes to make to the practice. It was good timing from that perspective,” he says.
With his wife and children still in Hong Kong, he was also free from distractions when he went home in the evening. “It made the transition much easier as I could catch up quickly. I could do in two months what would normally take me six months,” he says.
A lot to learn
Ng started working at KPMG 25 years ago, joining the firm after he graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in economics. He admits that at the time, he knew very little about the accounting profession. When offered a career path in either tax or auditing, he decided to do tax despite knowing next to nothing about it.
He set about obtaining his professional qualification, which under the old system meant taking 14 different exam papers, although Ng was exempted from one of these. “It was a relatively long process, but I got there within three years,” he remembers. Even once he had qualified, there was still a lot he had to learn. “I not only had to know the tax legislation, but I also had to look at court case judgments in Hong Kong and other jurisdictions. It was tough but I enjoyed it.”
Ng worked his way up through the ranks of KPMG, becoming a partner within 11 years. Before moving to Beijing, Ng was regional tax partner-in-charge of Hong Kong, managing the firm’s tax practice in the region, as well as continuing with client work and participating in various professional bodies, including being deputy chairman of the Institute’s Taxation Faculty Executive Committee. In fact, he says one of his few regrets of taking up the Beijing post was that he was not able to become chairman of the committee this year.
“Tax is only one of the factors clients will ask you about. They will also have questions from a business angle. When we give advice, we have to consider it from a much wider perspective than just tax.”
Responding to the next generation
One of the changes Ng introduced during his time as partner-in-charge in Hong Kong was setting up the Broader Perspective Programme for new joiners to the tax practice. He explains that the tax department had grown considerably since he first joined it, and there were now many different areas in which graduates could specialize, such as corporate tax, transfer pricing, tax disputes and merger and acquisition tax. The programme enables graduates to spend their first three years at the firm rotating between different teams in the tax department to gain experience of the different areas before making a decision on which area to specialize in.
“It is a matching process. On the one hand, the different teams can choose who is a good fit for them. At the same time, it gives young people the chance to choose which specialized area they would like to focus on.”
Another change introduced by Ng was creating an outsourcing centre for the tax department, not only to reduce costs but also to enable tax practitioners to focus on the more interesting aspects of their roles. “The younger generation has different expectations. They want to have job satisfaction and they believe they have the ability to do more complicated or higher value work,” he explains. “As a result, we tried to move the routine work away from them to the outsourcing centre, enabling them to focus on technical skills and have more opportunities to work with clients.”
While Ng initially had to reassure colleagues that setting up the outsourcing centre did not mean jobs were being taken away from Hong Kong, he says the move has been successful and led to an increase in retention rates and engagement among younger people.
Ng thinks being a tax practitioner has changed significantly since he first started his career, but that does not mean things are now easier for younger members of the profession.
He points out that while practitioners no longer have to wade through 40-page court judgments in order to come up with their own interpretation of a ruling – as they can simply look it up online – they still need to ensure they fully understand it. “I always encourage the younger generation to still spend some time doing their homework to make sure they really know what they are doing,” he says.
He also encourages them to develop a wider business knowledge. “Tax is only one of the factors clients will ask you about. They will also have questions from a business angle. When we give advice, we have to consider it from a much wider perspective than just tax.”
Soft skills, such as being a good communicator and listener, are also increasingly important. “Because of the more complex business environment, you have to listen carefully to understand what the real issue is for a client and what impact it could have on their operations. When you give advice, it will not just be written. The client will also want you to explain why you have come to this conclusion.”
He adds that in the current tax environment, in which new laws and guidance are frequently issued and interpretations change, it is not always possible to be completely certain. “It is very important for the tax professional to explain clearly to the client what the possible outcomes and risks are, and how to mitigate those risks.”
He also advises young people to “think big” and come up with new ideas. “You may be wrong most of the time, but without thinking, you will not find a better way of serving your clients.” At the same time, he tells them to be bold and embrace change, seeing it as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. “Don’t be afraid of change, take it as a positive. If you always think it will affect you negatively, you will go nowhere. Instead, see it as an opportunity,” he says.
He adds that there are always opportunities for young people who proactively look for them.
Before moving to Beijing, Ng was regional tax partner-in-charge of Hong Kong, managing the firm’s tax practice in the region. He was also deputy chairman of the Institute’s Taxation Faculty Executive Committee.
“In Hong Kong, we have had various changes to tax law to focus on various focused sectors, whether these are user-friendly is still questionable, I believe we have to take a good look at it.”
A resilient economy
Ng thinks Mainland China is one of these opportunities. Despite the short-term disruption caused by the pandemic, he expects the Mainland’s economy to remain resilient over the medium to long-term. He points out that in most places in the Mainland, it is now “business as usual,” while high-end malls in locations such as Shanghai are actually benefitting from people being unable to travel abroad, as more money is being spent at home. “Consumers in China are still spending. There is still a very strong engine behind China’s economy. There will always be ups and downs and challenges, but over time, the growth will still be there,” he says.
Even so, he does expect the pandemic to leave lasting changes on the way the economy operates. Firstly, he expects many things that were previously conducted face-to-face, from business meetings to education, to continue to be conducted online, even once travel returns to normal, as it is more efficient. He also expects online shopping and food delivery to continue to grow. “I believe this will be unstoppable – not only in China, but globally,” he says.
Ng does not expect the pandemic to have a significant impact on tax policy, pointing out that most government measures to support the economy take the form of cash handouts, rather than tax measures.
In Mainland China, he highlights how open-minded the State Taxation Administration is, and its willingness to listen to professional and industry views on policy in order to promote a good environment for business. “There are still various challenges, but I can see the improvement and development of the economy.”
Ng believes tax policy should focus on medium and long-term issues, rather than short-term ones, stressing that giving businesses tax certainty is important for medium and long-term growth. He adds that while tax can be used to drive policy changes, such as the introduction of the research and development tax concession in Hong Kong to encourage innovation, incentives are only effective if businesses actually use them.
As a result, he says it is important that governments have a review mechanism to check that their tax policies are working as they intended, and to make changes if they are not. “In Hong Kong, we have had various changes to tax law to focus on various focused sectors, whether these are user-friendly is still questionable. I believe we have to take a good look at it,” he says.
Globally, Ng believes international cooperation in areas such as tax avoidance, including base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) 2.0, will have a bigger impact on the tax profession. “If you look at BEPS 2.0, it could potentially have a financial impact on Hong Kong if it leads to less investment. The government has to consider the best way for Hong Kong to go forward.”
Hong Kong introduced a number of preferential tax regimes in the past to attract foreign investments. Taxpayers who qualify for the preferential tax regimes would typically enjoy lower tax rates. Yet, there is a minimum tax requirement under the BEPS 2.0 proposal and the tax rates under the preferential tax regimes would likely be below the minimum. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had issued a consultation paper in October laying out the blueprint of the BEPS 2.0 proposal and the details are yet to be finalized. Nonetheless, it is likely that the proposal would make preferential tax regimes less effective in attracting foreign investments.
Learning from golf
Ng says the most memorable thing about his career has been all the people he has met through his work, not only in the tax profession, but also in the firm and among his clients. “It is because I meet all of these people that I find myself having the chance to learn many new things. I like to learn, and I think it has enabled me to become a much better person, not only from a professional point of view but also as a human being,” he says.
When he is not working, Ng likes to spend time with his family and play golf. “Golf is a good sport, but it is also a good way to learn from others and improve yourself.”
He points out that golf made him realize that one bad shot does not matter, and if he continues to play, he can hit better shots and still get a good result.
In October, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had issued a consultation paper laying out the blueprint of the base erosion and profit shifting 2.0 proposal. It is likely that the proposal would make Hong Kong’s preferential tax regimes less effective in attracting foreign investments.