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[Op-Ed] Cheonggye Foundation

Posted July. 07, 2009 08:22,   


Korean philanthropists often establish foundations providing scholarships rather than welfare when they donate their wealth to society. The country has nearly 2,000 private scholarship foundations, apparently stemming from the prevailing belief that nothing is more helpful for the poor than learning. Another reason is that many feel regret over their lack of opportunity to study when they were young. The Cheonggye Foundation to be established with the personal assets of President Lee Myung-bak will focus on scholarships. The foundation will purportedly provide welfare assistance, but the chairman of its organizing committee, Song Jeong-ho, said, “Welfare programs will only entail food assistance for students.” He then presented the committee’s blueprint on provision of scholarships for the poor.

In his memoirs, President Lee thanked those who assisted him in the past, saying they were not the rich but the poor. He also said he decided to donate his wealth far before December 2007, when he announced his pledge ahead of the presidential election. His biography “There Is No Such Thing as a Myth” contains the line, “I will not leave my wealth to my children.” President Lee also said he chose to provide scholarships to repay what he received, recalling his childhood.

Keeping a promise to donate wealth is an honorable thing to do. The presidential office said President Lee is the world`s first sitting head of state to donate his wealth during the term of office. For this reason, however, there is room for doubt about the motive. Many presidential candidates with ample wealth will eventually run for the country’s highest office, and many of them could again seek to use donation of their wealth or be forced to donate in times of crises in election campaigns.

The presidential election is an important matter in that the country must elect a competent leader. Today, the capacity of a leader has nothing to do with wealth. There is no reason for a candidate to be regarded higher just because he or she is poor or will make a big donation to society. Donors should give their wealth in a way unrelated to elections. Wealth donation will send out a warm message only when done out of pure altruism. A tradition is needed in which a presidential candidate is evaluated based on his or her quality, competence and morality only.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)