From auditor to leading entertainment executive, Najwa Abu Bakar is one of many 21st century accountants pushing their careers to greater heights.

If you think about accountants and the Academy Awards, your mind will go straight to 2017. That was the ceremony at which auditors entered Oscars infamy when they handed presenter Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for Best Picture.

But it wasn’t always like that. More than a decade earlier, in 2005, PwC Malaysia audit manager Najwa Abu Bakar CPA (Aust.) was watching the Oscars from her home in Kuala Lumpur. She saw Clint Eastwood take the Best Director Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and Australian Cate Blanchett win Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator.

As the (correct) winners’ names were broadcast to a worldwide audience, Abu Bakar had an idea that has defined her career. “I thought, ‘Whenever there's an awards ceremony, there's always an accountant’, right?”

Most of Abu Bakar’s PwC contemporaries were moving into finance-related careers when she had her flash of inspiration. “I love my movies, I love my music, I love my television,” she thought. “There must be an area within media entertainment where I could bring my skill set.”

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Najwa Abu Bakar CPA (Aust.), Head of Astro Shaw and Vice President of Business Development, Astro Malaysia Holdings

Flash forward to now, and Abu Bakar is a leading light in the Malaysian entertainment industry. As vice president at Astro Group, a leading Southeast Asian media conglomerate, she holds a dual role as head of business development for the content group and head of feature film studio Astro Shaw. Along the way, she has had senior roles at HBO Asia and Singapore telco StarHub.

Abu Bakar’s career is just one example of how an accountancy career can defy stereotypes and lead to some exciting corporate adventures. In a blog post for DeVry University in the US, adjunct professor Barbara Davies nominated six accountancy roles with the “coolness factor”:

* Forensic accountants: “[They] are financial sleuths investigating tax cheaters, embezzlers, inside traders and insurance fraudsters on behalf of private companies and public law enforcement agencies.”

* Mergers and acquisitions accountants: “They analyse the financial statements of possible acquisition targets, compiling a careful analysis of a target’s strengths and weaknesses.”

* Entertainment accountants: “You’ll learn how to amortise the production costs for films, pay the actors and produce financial statements for the studio or partnership producing a film or television show.”

* Chief financial officer: “They are responsible for the economic wellbeing of a business, including setting budgets and devising long-term financial strategies.”

* Sports accountant: “While a love of sports is obviously important, also be prepared to learn some specialised accounting procedures to add to your fundamental skills.”

* International accountant: “Global firms rely on accountants to manage their financial affairs at their offices abroad. [They] navigate trade treaties, pay taxes in multiple governmental jurisdictions and deal with currency exchanges.”

Abu Bakar says she “felt an itch to do something different”. “I was an auditor – not just an accountant,” she says. “I had an innate wish to do something where I'm constantly learning.”

Abu Bakar says she continues to use many fundamental skills gained via her CPA Program studies and experience as an auditor, including the ability to be analytical, handle constant change and work in teams with different skill sets.

“You still need to be numerate, have discipline and project management skills,” she says. “[It’s the same] from auditing to making a movie: it’s about putting things together, strategising it, running with it, launching it. Those are skills I hope to do well in every job I take, no matter what industry,” she says.

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Regardless of where they work, accountants ask the same questions before any project, she says. “Where are the opportunities? How are we going to address risk? How are we going to recoup costs? You have to find activities that generate income and find new ways of doing it. It's still finance-related – you can't run away from that.”

Not many accountants, however, have an entry in global movie database IMDb, as Abu Bakar has. As an executive producer, her latest and most exciting project is a film adaptation of Tan Twan Eng's historical drama The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. A collaboration between Astro Shaw, HBO Asia and National Film Development Corporation Malaysia, the film stars Angelica Lee, Hiroshi Abe, David Oakes and John Hannah. It’s due for general release in 2019.

“So much is riding on it,” she says. “Our intention when we started development of this film was to show the best of Malaysia. For me, this is very exciting because we had a greater purpose than just making a movie. It's really trying to carve a spot in Malaysian filmmaking history that, hopefully, people outside Malaysia can enjoy.”

The Astro experience has made Abu Bakar realise things are never just “black and white”. “Things are so subjective,” she says. “How do you know a script is good? How do you know this idea is great? You find perhaps there's no right answer, but what needs to underpin each film is a business case.

“For me, it was a case of understanding and learning that some things can be explained many ways, but what we can do is underpin all of that with logic and numbers.”

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