My International Passport

How my actuarial qualifications and volunteering experience brought me across continents
Kay Ying Shong

Photo: iStock.com/IR_Stone

2021 Young Actuaries in Asia Essay Winners

This article is one of the three winners of the Society of Actuaries 2021 Young Actuaries in Asia Essays on Societal Impact contest. Participants were asked to provide specific examples of how they are making a societal impact using their actuarial skills in either a personal or professional context.

Read the other winning essays:

When I received a letter to remind me of passport renewal in case I need to travel in the next six months, I sighed at the fact that no one, including me, is able to travel freely despite having an international passport. Looking back at my past 14 years as an actuary, my actuarial qualifications have served as my international passport, bringing me across continents—from actuarial analyst in New York City to actuarial consultant in Hong Kong and China and now an actuarial director at an InsurTech (Coherent) based in Singapore.

During the past 10 years, I have settled down in a country where I spent my teenage years and now call it my home. I have been privileged to have had opportunities to experience different facets of actuarial work, from valuation and mergers and acquisitions (M&As) at a consulting firm to product development at reinsurers for Southeast Asia. Traveling regularly to various Southeast Asian countries to meet clients was my routine; the sense of satisfaction from seeing my product ideas coming to fruition was indescribable.

Developing a Passion for Product Development

During the MERS-CoV outbreak in the Middle East in 2015, it occurred to me that MERS coverage for the hajj pilgrimage would be critical to give pilgrims peace of mind during their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. Many Muslims have saved and queued for years to travel to Mecca for this pilgrimage, but some may have been deterred due to the MERS outbreak. However, as a (re)insurer, it was difficult to (re)insure MERS during the outbreak without fully understanding the risk. (In the context of today, it would be to insure COVID-19 right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

When I shared this idea of covering MERS during the hajj pilgrimage at Mecca with the chief actuary of a takaful operator, he was elated and said it was the best idea he had ever received and a timely benefit for Muslim customers in Malaysia. To support this idea, I did desktop research by reading up on MERS and its statistics on the World Health Organization (WHO) website and checking if other insurers supported the same idea (it wasn’t a surprise that they didn’t back then). I also did further research on the annual quota of the hajj pilgrimage in Malaysia (which had been around 30,000 for a country of 20 million Muslims). As the MERS outbreak was contained in the Middle East, exposure to MERS was limited to the duration of the hajj pilgrimage, which is typically performed over five to six days.

Equipped with this information, I discussed extensively with the chief underwriter and chief medical officer to better understand this medical condition before all of us agreed on an appropriate and insurable definition that was to cover death during the hajj or within 21 days upon return from it. I also documented all of my pricing and underwriting discussions in pricing memos and explained the thought process to the chief pricing actuary before we provided a retakaful proposal to the takaful operator, which launched it within months.

It may seem like a quick and easy task, just like a typical reinsurance quotation, and it is gratifying to see that this takaful operator is still providing this insurance coverage of value for its Muslim customers five years later. Muslim customers can and will have peace of mind when they travel to Mecca for their once-in-a-lifetime hajj pilgrimage.

Since then, product development has become my passion. Using my actuarial skills, I have priced and developed insurance products to cover phototherapy treatment for babies with severe jaundice, developmental delay for young children, mental health conditions for standard lives, critical illness conditions for people living with diabetes and cancer products for cancer survivors. I was elated to share maternity insurance products in Southeast Asia (including one that I priced and launched for a Singapore-based multinational insurer) at the 2018 International Congress of Actuaries in Berlin.

Volunteering to Make a Societal Impact

While I find my professional work experience in product development fulfilling, I also find volunteering at the Singapore Actuarial Society (SAS) rewarding in terms of making a societal impact.

As SAS Health Committee chair since 2019, I have led the committee of 15 members to support health-related initiatives with government agencies in Singapore (e.g., Ministry of Health) to provide actuarial support in policymaking as well as to elevate public education in these areas.

Long-term Care (LTC)

Before the previous LTC scheme (ElderShield) was formally retired in October 2020, the SAS Health Committee put together an LTC paper comparing LTC systems in various developed countries (including Singapore) to educate the public about the various LTC systems and key LTC pricing assumptions. Noting that there was a public debate about why females pay higher premiums (in view of longer life expectancy) than their male counterparts, we highlighted the need to focus on LTC claims experience as it evolves. Together with the SAS Council, we shared this paper with and proposed to the then-nominated member of Parliament (NMP) Irene Quay to include a fellow of the SAS on the CareShield Life Council. Both were mentioned in the parliamentary speech, and the proposal to include a fellow of the SAS was accepted in the Parliament in September 2019.

After the enhancement to CareShield Life in October 2020, all Singaporeans (older than 30) are now entitled to LTC coverage with monthly payouts of SGD 600 indexed with annual inflation for life. The CareShield Life Council was appointed in April 2020 and includes professionals across different industries and one actuary (who is a fellow of the SAS).

Universal Health Care (MediShield Life) Review

MediShield Life is the universal health scheme for all Singaporeans and permanent residents in Singapore. Different from other developed nations where universal health is funded via national taxation, MediShield Life is designed as basic health insurance where every Singaporean pays an annual premium. In late 2020, after considering the needs and claims experience of the scheme, the MediShield Life Council appointed by the Ministry of Health (MOH) came up with a number of new enhancements that the MOH planned to implement coupled with premium increases in April 2021.

To gather public feedback, the MOH issued a public consultation and invited the SAS Health Committee to respond as a professional body. The SAS Health Committee promptly formed a working group to study each of the new enhancements as well as their implications on private Integrated Shield plans in Singapore. Without access to proprietary claims data beyond the public consultation, we provided our comments to the MOH based on our understanding and experience in the health insurance landscape in Singapore, supported by research from the public domain. We also presented to SAS members to gather further feedback.

It was reassuring to me that our actuarial experience was useful to policymakers in enacting policy enhancements that affect the entire nation. Our comments were further referenced by the public and other professions, such as the Singapore Medical Association in “SMA 61st Council Position Statement on Troubled Integrated Shield Plans” and the Life Insurance Association (LIA) in its corresponding response. While I will always emphasize that all readers should read this paper in its entirety, I was glad that our efforts did not go to waste and made an impact in the public debate of rising health insurance costs against a panel selection of doctors by private health insurers in Singapore.

Conclusion

Equipped with actuarial qualifications, I am glad I have chosen a career path where I can develop my passion for insurance product development and make a societal impact on policymaking via volunteering at the SAS. I also am confident that InsurTech startups like Coherent can fulfill my dream of increasing insurance access to everyone from all walks of life with the adoption of technology designed to make insurance product launch fast, intuitive and rigorous.

Kay Ying Shong, FSA, CERA, FSAS, is director of actuarial at Coherent and chair of the Singapore Actuarial Society Health Committee. Kay is also a council member of the Singapore Actuarial Society and board member of the International Actuarial Association Health Section.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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