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Faith and profit

Published on Sunday, 29 Sep 2013
Images: iStockphoto

Career opportunities in shariah-compliant finance are growing as companies meet rising demand

Double-digit growth in the Islamic finance sector and a budding demand for alternative forms of banking are translating into burgeoning career opportunities. Entry into the sector, though, is not easy. Those with a true passion for Islamic finance, however, as well as strong management skills, will likely flourish in what is one of the fastest growing sectors in finance.

“Opportunities are definitely there,” Rafe Haneef, CEO of HSBC Amanah Malaysia Berhad, says. “To my mind, it’s more a matter of talent matching, rather than a question of opportunities.”

According to the Global University of Islamic Finance (INCEIF), a leading institution for Islamic finance education, the international Islamic finance market has grown 50 per cent faster than the conventional banking sector in recent years. The market for shariah-compliant assets rose more than 160 per cent between 2009 and 2011, while Islamic finance investments are forecast to increase to US$2.5 trillion by 2015, from the current US$1.5 trillion.

Reasons for this include the fact that Islam is one of the fastest growing religions today, with Muslims worldwide opting for shariah-compliant products. An increase in oil wealth for Muslim nations is also a key driver.

With Islamic finance one of the fastest growing sectors in global financial services, it is no wonder that a career in the sector is becoming an attractive option. “Being in a growth area always affords unique challenges and rewards that will interest talents and investors alike,” Haneef says.

Another reason for rising interest in the sector is a growing sentiment towards a more just and ethical way of practising commercial transactions. According to INCEIF, there is a huge increase in non-Muslims looking for ethical financial products, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.

“The financial industry is still recovering from the global financial crisis of 2008 and many are looking at other forms of financial intermediation which take a more responsible outlook towards the provision of banking and financial services,” Haneef says.

In fact, Standard & Poor’s estimated that 20 per cent of banking customers in Asia and the Persian Gulf would now spontaneously choose an Islamic financial product over a conventional one with a similar risk-return profile. A representative from INCEIF’s communications and marketing department explains that this is because the principles and philosophies of Islamic finance tend to appeal to a universal audience.

“The world is looking for an alternative to the current conventional financial system, which at its most dark moments of the financial crisis brought misery to many ordinary people and crippled the economies of many developed nations,” the representative says.

Haneef admits, however, that perception remains the biggest challenge for Islamic finance globally. “Promoting Islamic finance as a more ethically inclined way of doing banking and business, and dispelling the myths surrounding it, will do much to enhance perception,” he says. “The more the industry manages to correct perceptions, the greater the opportunities, as more doors will open and the potential rewards will grow.”

In Asia-Pacific, countries with large Muslim populations such as Indonesia and Malaysia are naturally experiencing a higher demand for Islamic financial services. They are not alone, however. There is general agreement that global financial centres such as Hong Kong, and especially Singapore, are also home to many major international banks that are playing a more significant role in the growth of Islamic finance in Asia.

While the sector is growing fast, Haneef warned that the job market in Islamic finance remains comparatively small and is therefore highly competitive. “This means that there may be narrower opportunities in Islamic finance than in conventional finance or other industries,” he says.

Nevertheless, “Islamic finance is one of the growing industries in an otherwise slow job market,” the INCEIF representative says. “Therefore, there is a lot of interest among graduates looking for a job in the industry and related fields.”

In fact, according to Raja Ahmad Muzamir, manager of the banking front office at Robert Walters in Malaysia, the areas in which he is seeing high demand are Islamic capital markets, Islamic wealth management, and shariah governance and compliance.

“Skilled and experienced Islamic capital markets professionals are highly sought-after as banks with Islamic banking licences seek to increase their presence,” he says. “Financial institutes are also seeking qualified Islamic compliance professionals, mainly due to tightened regulatory controls and the constant need to oversee shariah-compliance for policies, regulations and products of the organisation.”

Much like conventional finance, there are many areas within Islamic finance that offer careers and development. “The industry is not limited just to graduates with Islamic banking and finance qualifications,” Haneef says. “It needs lawyers, accountants, marketing professionals and many more.”

As a first step into the sector, there is general agreement that candidates must have a strong interest in Islamic finance, and a strong conviction for a fair and just financial system.

At entry level, a good understanding of Islamic law, particularly commercial transactions, is a must. According to Haneef, at a more experienced level, a strong passion for Islamic finance is critical. “Be passionate about it and be prepared to endure the challenges and hardships, as the industry is still growing at a rapid pace,” he says.

Acquiring knowledge in both conventional and Islamic finance is therefore useful as it allows the person to have a broader view on issues affecting both systems. It also provides clarity on the differences between financial practices for Islamic banking and conventional banking.

The INCEIF representative also suggests that building a strong background in shariah knowledge in relation to business and finance, as well as learning Arabic, will give candidates an edge.

“The bonus would be for the person to know Arabic as this would enable him to understand the Arabic text of fatwa [Islamic edicts], writings of earlier scholars, and different views of the mazhab [schools of thoughts],” the representative explains. “Of course, we can have the English translation of these materials, but being able to read and understand the original texts and materials is always a bonus.”

Like any other industry, management skills, planning, communication and technical skills are always important.

“Increasingly, we find that basic project- and product-management skills are becoming crucial to have in the workplace,” Haneef says.

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