Accountants always get a bad press - you know, boring types who carry their pens in shirt pockets - but the image is set to change.

The industry not only aims to make over the image of the bean-counters, but also plans to transform the entire profession and develop Singapore into an accountancy hub.

Among the recommendations of the Committee to Develop the Accountancy Sector, one was a qualifying programme to raise the standard of skills among accountants here.

While the reforms will take several years to bear fruit, a key step will be made today with the official formation of a statutory body under the Ministry of Finance, to be known as the Singapore Accountancy Commission (SAC), with Mr Uantchern Loh as chief executive.

The SAC will oversee the strategic direction, growth and development of the sector.

Mr Michael Lim, a former top accountant who headed PricewaterhouseCoopers, is chairman and ready to lead the charge. He said: "Our charge is to develop the accountancy sector such that it plays a larger role in the economic development of Singapore. And in this process, we believe that the profile and standing of professional accountants in Singapore will be enhanced."

Launching a qualifying programme will be one of the first tasks of the commission.

The system in Singapore so far involves graduates getting an accountancy degree from Nanyang Technological University, the National University of Singapore or Singapore Management University.

After graduation, they work with a professional firm, or work in industry as accountants, for example.

On meeting certain criteria, such as a minimum level of experience, they are awarded the qualification of Certified Public Accountant of Singapore.

The new qualifying programme, called the Singapore Qualification Programme (Singapore QP), which will lead

to a Chartered Accountant of Singapore (CA Singapore) designation, is seen as one of the most significant changes to emerge.

The Singapore QP, to be launched in June, will follow in the footsteps of leading accountancy institutes overseas, such as Britain and Australia, where non-accounting graduates are able to enter the accounting profession through a qualification programme.

Such a programme offers multiple benefits for companies, said Mr Lim.

"When you open the Singapore QP to non-accounting graduates, you broaden the accountancy profession, with people having different backgrounds. You further achieve a higher degree of stability and talent retention in that the non-accounting graduates have made the switch and are more likely to remain longer in the profession."

Smaller companies stand to benefit in terms of improving the quality of people that they hire. They could opt to send someone with a marketing qualification for the course who can then be trained in accounting.

For small firms that often find it difficult to attract the best of the crop, they may now gain employees with more skills.

Singapore is not the first in Asia to introduce such a training and qualifying programme. The Hong Kong qualification, for example, has been around since 1999.

However, Singapore's selling point for this course - for Singapore students as well as the overseas ones taking it up - is that it will be an Asian focus with more relevance to Asian markets.

Said Mr Lim: "Our people should possess greater knowledge about the business environments within the Asian countries. Asia is not a homogeneous region and there are differing business practices specific to each country that we should be familiar with."

Initially, the course will target about 500 students, from a mix of accountancy and non-accountancy candidates, as well as graduates from local and foreign universities.

Including the Big Four companies, other accredited training organisations (ATOs) will include Keppel, ComfortDelGro, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and Standard Chartered Bank.

PwC executive chairman Yeoh Oon Jin said that the programme "will raise the bar of the accounting profession and help to upgrade competencies of accountants to serve businesses that are becoming more complex."

At another Big Four firm, Deloitte, its CEO, Mr Philip Yuen, said that "the Singapore QP will provide an opportunity for many young non-accounting graduates to develop into qualified accountants... These graduates will bring a different perspective to the job and add to the diversity of our talent pool".

The challenge for the programme, and for the SAC, will be the level of acceptability of the qualification among students and employers, Mr Lim notes.

"The ATOs, Singapore QP candidates, academia and other stakeholders will need to rally behind the Chartered Accountant of Singapore (CA Singapore) designation and believe that it will be the gold standard for professional accountants internationally."

While the SAC's immediate focus is to launch the qualification, "our charge is to develop the accountancy sector. This is a sector that comprises the professional firms, as well as those that conduct tax work, internal auditors and chief financial officers as well".

Mr Lim added that where there are currently professional bodies such as the Tax Academy of Singapore and the Institute of Internal Auditors Singapore, SAC will work with them to achieve common goals of the accountancy sector without reinventing the wheel.

Mr Lim concluded: "The SAC will have achieved a significant milestone when the CA Singapore designation receives full reciprocity of recognition with the other major international professional accountancy bodies."