Simon Brimblecombe shares his experiences working as a social security actuary in south-east Asia
Sawadee krub! I write from Bangkok in Thailand – a wonderful city that, even during COVID-19, never seems to sleep. After starting as a trainee pensions actuary in the UK,
I decided to take a career break doing a Master’s degree and some English teaching in South America. This led to me increasingly working on social security issues. For the past 10 years, I have worked for the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency.
I worked initially in Geneva and since 2019 have headed up the ILO Regional Actuarial Services Unit in Thailand.
South-east Asia is characterised by several paradoxes. The population is young, but ageing more rapidly than even that of Europe. Most countries have seen significant economic growth, but the majority of the working population are informal workers with no social protection. Add in the different cultural, social, management and political environments, and the work is challenging – but fascinating.
While the actuarial profession is not unknown here, one of the challenges is getting more recognition for the role of actuaries in policy and financial decision-making. Undertaking analysis and using judgment to translate results into appropriate recommendations is a key part of the work. I manage projects in eight countries, and it’s essential to adapt to the local environment – their demographics, economics and labour markets.
Actuaries add a lot of value to social security. My ILO colleagues and I provide technical advice and recommendations for setting up new social security schemes, reforming existing schemes (for example, how to increase the retirement age as life expectancy increases and birth rates fall), and, recently, working with governments and social security organisations to adapt and respond to the challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past two years have shown the importance of government intervention, particularly in social protection. Our work has included expanding coverage, relaxing eligibility requirements, facilitating affiliation and claiming, and paying additional benefits. This has made a big difference to many, though there is always more to do. Actuarial input is essential to cost such interventions and provide advice on the design and financing of long-term sustainable solutions to ensure social protection is equipped to respond to future crises.
South-east Asia is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It already suffers from an increasing number and severity of extreme events, such as flooding, and is faced with rising sea levels, which will displace populations in the decades ahead. This is an area with strong regional actuarial expertise, often driven by insurers and reinsurers, and gives us the chance to work across disciplines.
Another key aim for my team is building long-term capacity in the region. This means strengthening existing actuarial resources through training, knowledge transfer and the support of junior actuaries in their work and exams.
Land of smiles
Living in another culture has been an enriching experience for my family and me. Despite COVID-19, we have managed to see many parts of this wonderful country. Highlights of our time here have included an overnight train ride to Chiang Mai, Khao Yai national park, Chiang Rai, temples wherever you look, and of course the islands in the south. The food is incredible and the people are super friendly. The ‘land of smiles’ is an apt description of the country.
I have always wanted to travel, and my profession has allowed me to do so. Speaking different languages, meeting new people and adapting to different work situations makes you question what you are doing, and impostor syndrome often looms large. However, an open approach and exchanging ideas means you never stop learning.
To all those who are thinking of working abroad or in different areas, my only advice would be to go for it – you never regret working abroad.
Simon Brimblecombe is chief technical adviser and head of regional actuarial services at the International Labour Organization in Bangkok
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