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Bridging the gap through digital literacy

In our Asia Vision Series, we dive into key industry trends and issues with subject matter experts and visionaries in the region. In part 2 of 3 of this interview, Grace Chng, one of Singapore’s most senior tech writers, speaks with Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, Microsoft’s regional director for Corporate, External and Legal Affairs for Southeast Asia. Tuminez shares how technology, digital literacy and education are critical for succeeding in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

“I tried pre-med as a major in college, and we were dissecting small animals and moving towards bigger ones. When the professor asked us to dissect a cat and to find our own cat to dissect, I refused. After that experience, I thought, ‘I really should try something else. How about languages? How about I try some French and Spanish?’ says Tuminez, recounting how she uncovered her passion for learning new tongues. “I found that I was quite good at it and I enjoyed it and now I speak six languages, including English, Russian, Ilongo, French, Tagalog and Spanish.”

With the advent of the 4th Industrial Revolution, Tuminez sees coding as a new universal language of the 21st century.

Learning how to code can not only complement, but also develop other important fundamental skills, such as problem-solving and creative thinking – skills that are critical for succeeding in the digital economy. Digital literacy is particularly relevant in Asia – which comprises 60 percent of the world’s youth population.

Picking up new skills and upgrading should be the new norm, and millennials seem to be embracing this notion well, Tuminez observes. She looks to her own 21-year-old daughter as a reflection of a generation keen on chalking up life experiences.

“She left Columbia University in the U.S. after just a semester to learn permaculture farming in the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal and India, to knit and sell her knitting, be an au pair in Suzhou and Hawaii, apprentice in beekeeping in Canada and get certified in CPR in Vermont. Her secret weapon is her smartphone, which she uses to search for new jobs and learn new skills,” Tuminez shares. “When I talk to her now, I’m actually learning from her. I’m no longer telling her what to do because she’s actually deploying technology and new modes of learning.”

In this vein, the onus is on everyone to equip themselves with relevant skills. Reskilling can take many forms; someone  who has an MBA or law degree, for example, can sign up for a coding course which can lead to a higher salary, explains Tuminez.

“Providing access to quality education is a great way to build a society with inclusive growth. Governments and the private sector can play their role by trying harder to help those who do not have access or cannot afford it,” she says.

Reskilling is already a top agenda item for many countries in Asia. In Singapore, for example, Microsoft and LinkedIn, along with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and public agencies, are collaborating on a study to identify the skills gap in the local workforce through big data and analytics. This is aimed at addressing the expected rise in the mismatch between skills and jobs amid digital disruptions across various industries.

The importance of digital literacy for the workplace of tomorrow is also increasingly being recognized across Asia. Many countries have partnered with Microsoft under its global YouthSpark program, which encourages youths to learn computer science and empower them to achieve more in the digital economy.

For example, for juvenile prison inmates in Malaysia, picking up coding is a chance at a fresh start. “Students who pass get a certificate. By giving digital literacy and skills training, this public-private sector collaboration helps former delinquents to increase their chances of successfully reintegrating into society and start life anew,” shares Tuminez.

In Vietnam, disadvantaged youths in fishing villages along coastal areas can now get easier access to learning facilities through a project called the Enabling Boat. A vessel functions as a mobile classroom providing underserved communities with access to resources and training related to ICT and computer science, as well as environmental conservation. The project aims to help them adapt to the digital economy and improve their livelihoods.

Over in Japan, Microsoft partners with a non-profit organization called iLeap to provide training in leadership and digital skills in the U.S. for visiting groups of less privileged youth. They then get the chance to give back by working at NGOs at home and making use of their new technology skills.

“When we look at the incredible transformation that digital technologies are driving in our economies and societies, we should not ignore the disruption these technologies also bring and the skills that everyone, especially youths, require for future jobs,” says Tuminez.

Globally, Microsoft supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Developmental Goals which aims to tackle some of the toughest problems worldwide by 2030, particularly in the areas of government, public safety, jobs, gender equality, national security, health, education and building next-generation cities. This is particularly critical for Asia, where these challenges are compounded by factors such as rapid urbanization and declining productivity.

Technology can play a key role in solving these issues, but governments must first develop strategies and well-defined policies. Then they can invest smartly, especially in education. “While technology can help, it is just a tool. Teachers need training to properly optimize technology for learning – because they are the single most critical factor. If they are afraid of technology, then their students lose out,” says Tuminez. “So much more can be accomplished in education when governments understand how technology can empower students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The results will speak for themselves, as we have already seen in many places.”

“Digital literacy is critical for everyone to participate meaningfully in the 4th Industrial Revolution, as new skills are needed to match the rapid pace of technological change in the digital economy,” she explains. “Relearning and upskilling will be the norm from now on.”

Read the third and final installment of this interview series here, where Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez shares how Asia can democratize access to technology’s benefits and opportunities. You can also catch up on part 1, where she discusses whether the region can address the inequalities of growth. 

You can also enjoy reading more Asia Vision Series interviews with our other thought leaders and subject matter experts here.


Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez
Regional Director, Corporate, External and Legal Affairs,
Microsoft Southeast Asia

Based in Singapore, Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez is responsible for driving government relations, corporate citizenship, as well as business and regulatory initiatives in the region. She is also an accomplished global speaker and widely published author. In 2013, Tuminez was selected as a “Top 100 Global Influencer” by the Filipina Women’s Network of the United States. She has held leadership, consultancy and research roles with organizations such as the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, US Institute of Peace, AIG Global Investment Group, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Council on Foreign Relations, the World Bank, and Bank of Philippine Islands.

Grace Chng

Grace Chng is among Singapore’s most senior tech writers, with wide experience setting up and managing editorial teams in the city state and across the Asia Pacific region. She was the key tech writer for Singapore’s national broadsheet The Straits Times for over two decades. While there, she co-founded and edited the technology section, Computer Times (which later became Digital Life), for nearly 19 years. She has interviewed many of the world’s top tech leaders, including Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates, Airbnb’s co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk, Catcha Group’s chairman Patrick Grove, and Lazada’s CEO Maximilian Bittner.