November 19, 2004 (STAR) By Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine flag waved briefly in the grand ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel here yesterday, where Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer opened the first "Government Leaders Forum" to be held in Asia.

Encarnacion Montales, who has been working here as a maid for 19 years, waved the flag together with three other Filipinos, who are among the first batch of volunteer teachers trained by Microsoft for a special program that aims to make overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) computer literate.

The 58-year-old Montales, who heads the Filipino Overseas Workers in Singapore (FOWS) and is the principal of the group’s Skills Training Program, is herself barely computer literate. She has rudimentary knowledge of word processing and is just starting to learn how to send e-mail with help from her employer of 19 years, who is a computer analyst.

Montales has been reluctant to learn, but other Filipino workers here have been more eager. She said that since the Skills Training Program was launched at the Bayanihan Center 12 years ago by then Ambassador Francisco Benedicto, subjects in information and communication technologies (ICT) have been among the most popular, together with lessons in nursing aide work and aromatherapy.

Last week the first batch of volunteer teachers under the Microsoft "Unlimited Potential" program graduated here together with some 600 other Filipino workers who completed training in various skills.

Among the first batch of volunteer teachers are Lito Azcarraga, ICT manager of a Saudi petrochemical company; Zoe Villanueva, a mechanical engineering graduate of the National University of Singapore, and NUS science student Nestor Precioso. The three attended the opening of the Government Leaders Forum.

"Microsoft provides some cash, software, curriculum materials and training for the volunteer teachers," Ballmer said. "These classes are extremely popular. Filipino women are learning word processing, how to create computer spreadsheets. They’re creating PowerPoint presentations of business plans for small businesses they want to start when they return to the Philippines."

The Bayanihan Center has about 50 personal computers and eight volunteers teaching ICT subjects.

That gives OFWs here greater access to ICT training than many students in public schools in the Philippines.

Of the country’s 6,000 public high schools, only 61 percent have computer laboratories, according to Department of Education officials. The average "laboratory" consists of only a handful of PCs. DepEd officials say schools equipped with computers have about three ICT teachers each.

Microsoft has been providing software to public schools and skills training for ICT teachers in the Philippines for several years now. This is the first time that a training program has been designed specifically for OFWs. The eight-month certificate course will be launched in March next year, initially in this city-state and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A unique feature is the inclusion of OFWs’ relatives in a training course to be launched in Manila.

"We’ve realized that overseas workers are an important part of the Filipino economy," Ballmer said yesterday. "Many of them dream of being reunited with their families, but often they lack the skills to earn a decent living at home. Developing their skills could help them contribute to the Filipino economy without leaving the country. And it could help reduce the strain on the society caused by long family separations."

In partnership with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the local chapter of the non-government organization Partners in Learning, Microsoft is providing training in the Philippines to both departing and arriving OFWs.

The program is in line with a memorandum of understanding signed last Wednesday in Paris by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Director General Koichiro Matsuura of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help increase access to ICT and ICT skills training in underserved communities.

On the same day in this city-state, Microsoft also announced the global release of a two-volume ICT skills training curriculum, localized into more than 20 languages including Arabic, Chinese and Thai. The curriculum, which covers basic to intermediate ICT skills, is being customized for Philippine use when the training program for OFWs starts next year.

The curriculum will be incorporated in a computer literacy training program that will be offered by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) initially in 41 centers. The course covers computer and digital media fundamentals, Internet use, basic word processing as well as lessons in spreadsheets, presentation, web design and database.

‘A Good Global Citizen’

About 130 government officials from the Asia-Pacific region are participating in Microsoft’s 11th Government Leaders’ Forum here. Previous gatherings were held in the company’s headquarters in the United States. This year Microsoft decided to hold the meetings in three key areas around the world to encourage broader participation.

"We’re especially excited about working with governments throughout Asia, because this is such an exciting, dynamic and diverse part of the world," Ballmer said in his keynote speech here. "We want to be your partner... I’m very optimistic that we can make a positive contribution, particularly in Asia."

The world’s leading software developer is working with governments around the world to reduce the digital divide and fight ICT-related problems such as the use of cyberspace for pornography and terrorism.

Microsoft is also leading in the development of software for people with disabilities. To counter software piracy, Microsoft is developing affordable versions of its products and promoting a "get legal for less" program.

Ballmer admits that in spreading altruism around the world, the company’s shareholders and "self-interest" are also served. But Microsoft executives insist that the programs are merely in line with their corporate goal, which, in the words of Ballmer, is "how to be a good global citizen."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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