Korean billionaires still far from thinking outside the box

Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of the world's superrich and their wealth.

The total assets of 1,645 billionaires with over US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) this year stood at US$6.4 trillion, according to Forbes magazine, a leading source for reliable business news and financial information.

This was the total gross domestic product of the US, Canada and Mexico in 1992, when the three countries signed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The rise of the superrich and the splendor of their lifestyle have sparked strong opposition from people all over the world. It has therefore become a must for the world's billionaires to perform good deeds and share their riches.

It is no coincidence that "philanthropist" is one of the most often used terms in describing the superrich. People like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were some of the most celebrated philanthropists of their day, but the concept of doing good deeds has evolved quite a bit since then.

Creative capitalism

Bill Gates, who topped Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest people, said in a speech in 2008 that capitalism should head in a direction that can help not only the rich but also the poor.

Calling this idea "creative capitalism," Gates said that a system that can narrow global inequality should be established and that the rich should perform good deeds as obligations rather than as one of their corporate social responsibility activities.

In this regard, the purposes and methods of philanthropy have changed from taking credit for temporarily helping out underdeveloped communities, to working together to pursue sustainable happiness for everyone.

The superrich have come up with their own types of creative donations, with one example being the "buy one, give one" system.

US entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie is the founder of TOMS Shoes, a company that started the "One for One" donation system in 2006 to match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need.

In terms of assets, Mycoskie is worth US$300 million ― meaning he falls far short of being a billionaire. However, he has gained international recognition for selling more than 1 million pairs of shoes in 30 countries in just five years since establishing his company.

Other forms of philanthropy address the fundamental weaknesses of modern capitalism.

Johan Eliasch, president of sports equipment and clothing company HEAD NV, for instance, believes that the most effective way of preventing the development or industrialization of forested areas is to buy them.

Eliasch went ahead and purchased 1,600 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest, a habitat for more than 6 million creatures and a major source of the world's oxygen, in 2005 from a local logging company to support the environmental movement.

No Korean superrich philanthropists in sight

These creative philanthropic efforts by foreign billionaires should spur on the Korean superrich to take similar action.

In Korea, donations are still made quite conventionally, with conglomerates dispatching employees to help make kimchi for the underprivileged every winter, or providing financial aid for victims of natural disasters.

This, however, is not what creative philanthropy is about.

Out of the 48 major donors in Asia listed by Forbes magazine, only four were Koreans ― none of them billionaires ― despite the country's economy being the third largest in the region.

What is even more surprising is that 26 Korean business tycoons are on the Forbes list of billionaires, but not one of them was recognised as a major philanthropist.

In the domestic IT sector, attempts by the superrich to help raise funds for venture companies have been few and far between.

It is high time the Korean superrich thought less about making more money and more about spreading the wealth they have amassed so far.