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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The Asian actuary

With ever increasing globalisation and the opening of new markets to competition, the international demand for actuaries is constantly growing. The specialist skills, techniques, and outlook of the actuarial profession are recognised throughout the world. Focusing on Asia, from the highly developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan to the new setups and emerging markets of China, Vietnam, and India, actuaries are creating innovative solutions to business problems. The insurance products are, as yet, relatively unsophisticated but the market is open minded; Asia is facing rapid change and development. Forget the stereotypes, today’s actuary living and working in Asia is a multi-disciplinary business leader adding significant value in a truly diverse range of areas.
Unprecedented demand
A total of 148 qualified UK actuaries work in Asia (there are 673 qualified US actuaries), a small percentage compared to a total Faculty and Institute membership of 5,279 (US qualified 21,288) but a percentage that is set to increase. Demand for qualified and part-qualified actuaries is at unprecedented levels throughout the region, salaries are high, bonuses are extremely high, and the cost of living and tax rates in many countries are relatively low. People with the right skills, ambition, and attitude are promoted quickly and given increased levels of responsibility much earlier in their careers than would be the case in the UK. The colonial expat lifestyle, sitting on a terrace surrounded by servants, no longer exists these are dynamic business centres. The communities throughout Asia, both local and expat, are generally welcoming and friendly; people are always keen to get to know the new person on the block and help them settle in.

The challenges
So if the lifestyle is great, the reward is superior, the people are friendly, and the work is more diverse and interesting, why doesn’t everyone want to go? Moving house in the UK is stressful enough; moving continents and everything that it entails, and joining a culture that is so different to western culture can be a real shock to the system. Languages can be a problem: in Tokyo, an extremely international business city, very few people speak English. Problems faced vary from making yourself understood in restaurants to explaining to local people the different ways in which you can help. It takes a special sort of person to make the move, but those who do it never look back.

Japan and Hong Kong
In terms of working culture, Japan has a history of job for life and promotion on years of service, both of which cause recruitment problems for western companies. These two elements of the culture are starting to disappear as a new generation of young professionals expect to be rewarded for performance and employers have to start working to earn loyalty.
The contrast between Japan and Hong Kong (where actuaries are increasingly getting involved in e-business, banking, and wider management consulting) is immense. Hong Kong is a welcoming, buzzing, western-style city that opens its arms to skilled expats. Although Cantonese is the local language, most people speak English. Firms have to work extremely hard to retain top staff in an environment where it is not unusual to move jobs every 18 months to two years. Salaries are ever increasing, the work-hard-play-hard culture rules, and getting on a plane is as normal a part of life as getting on a bus or train is in Britain. Hong Kong is also ideally placed for developing the Greater China market you can expect to be dealing with Korea one minute, Hong Kong the next, and Beijing the next. It takes a lot of getting used to but also provides a level of variety that is difficult to match elsewhere in the world.

Some of the more basic economies offer very different challenges and problems. The Vietnamese insurance industry, for example, is going through an extremely rapid period of growth, development, and education. Getting a McDonald’s might be difficult, but those foreigners working in Vietnam are an integral part of what is arguably the most exciting period, from an actuary’s point of view, in any country in Asia.

Unique opportunities
Asian actuaries are business leaders working at the very heart of developing countries to improve standards of living, and working in some of the most sophisticated financial centres in the world. Supply is limited, demand is increasing; as the job market gets increasingly competitive, salaries are rising but so are expectations in terms of added value for businesses. The region may be in recession and exporting deflation around the world but, for outgoing, dynamic, ambitious individuals there are unique opportunities to have an impact on the companies and people of Asia.