[Viewpoint] Time for Ahn to stop treading water

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[Viewpoint] Time for Ahn to stop treading water

Venture entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo is still deep in thought. The quiet-spoken self-dubbed mentor to the young generation is still considering whether he should step into politics after he emerged as a strong potential presidential candidate four months ago, according to polls. However, while some people think he may yet throw his hat in the ring, his public statements and rhetoric remain tantalizingly ambiguous.

Politics is a new frontier for the self-taught software pioneer, who also serves as dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University. Ahn has famously described politics as a guessing game, and the same can be said of his future movements. But strong political leadership comes from experience, the ability to make courageous decisions and also a sense of visionary insight. It cannot be learned overnight. Late former President Kim Dae-jung was dubbed a “presidential candidate in waiting,” but he had spent much of his life as a dissident politician by the time he earned that moniker. Compared to Kim, Ahn is an opportunist whose entry into the world of politics was almost handed to him on a plate.

Ahn’s sudden rise came as a result of the public’s distrust in, and frustration with, the current political parties. He stepped into the limelight by hinting that he may be interested in running in the Seoul mayoral by-election - after which he bowed out to make way for the relatively unknown civilian activist Park Won-soon - at just the right time, and his approval ratings have been in an upward spiral ever since.

Recent political controversies, especially cases of embezzlement and bribery, have also worked in his favor by casting a negative pallor over Korean politics. In contrast to this apparent greed by entrenched politicians, Ahn offered to donate half of his shares in AhnLab, the antivirus company he founded, to help educate children from low-income families. His philanthropy came as a refreshing change after so many lurid stories of political figures issuing bribes to win votes and buy titles, and effectively earned him a free pass to the center stage of the political arena.

When quizzed on his ability to govern, Ahn, already well versed in the corporate world as a successful entrepreneur, said, “Being able to swim in a pool that is 2 meters deep is no different from being able to swim in the Pacific Ocean.” However, such throwaway comments must be viewed with a degree of suspicion as Ahn has never actually experienced the “ocean” of Korean politics. And there is a world of difference between swimming in the open sea and in an indoor pool. This soon became apparent to local swimming champion Cho Oh-ryun when he attempted to swim from Korea to Japan and was confronted by changing tides, shark attacks and other hazards.

Viewed in this light, Ahn’s comment becomes insulting to those who dare to face bigger challenges - be it in politics or sport - and their subsequent accomplishments. After all, the sea of politics is also awash with volatility and uncertainty. We must assume, therefore, that Ahn’s remark highlights either his lack of imagination or an exaggerated sense of self-confidence.

The entrepreneur should quickly realize that running a company is very different from running a city or country. Ahn said, “Administration is no big deal. I ran a company of more than 500 employees.” But state governance cannot be explained merely through numbers, and political sensitivities can hardly be compared to corporate considerations. The sense of precariousness and urgency related to state governance is quite unique. Someone who has been successful in corporate management rarely sees the same results in the murky world of politics. President Lee Myung-bak is a case in point.

Politics is sometimes described as “the art of possibilities.” Moreover, it is about destruction - clearing away old ideas, policies and laws so they can be replaced by new ones. Former President Roh Moo-hyun also once spoke of the vanity of politics. “Considering the toil and sweat you pour into it, the power and prestige is vain and lasts for too short a time,” he said. Citing the mendacity, temptations, mud fights and lack of privacy that go with being a public figure, he advised those who would listen to choose another career instead.

Luck is an important part of playing and winning the political game, but it is only one part of it. Those who succeed do so by virtue of perseverance and courage on top of their unwavering passion to make an impact or make society better. Even Roh lost four election battles, yet he kept on fighting even when he knew he would be defeated.

But Ahn has a special edge, and this can be detected in his illuminating books that make the reader want to learn from and imitate this quite extraordinary man. The irony is that his success puts him in an elite social bracket, and for the privileged, politics can often be seen as a fun diversion.

As many people hope to see Ahn continue as a pioneer in the software industry, the dilemma of which future best suits him is probably the key to explaining his prevarication.

But with deadlines pressing, Ahn must make a decision at some point, especially as any candidate running for a major public office is duty-bound to give voters time to judge their merits and performance. Voters are also becoming increasingly savvy. They know they are within their rights to grill candidates. This led them to question Ahn’s motive in flying to the United States recently to meet Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Ahn said he was seeking Gates’ advice on creating a philanthropic foundation, but suspicions linger that it may have been a shrewdly calculated publicity move.

Now the clock is ticking for Ahn. The longer he delays, the more people may question whether he is just buying time to evade some tough questions from the public. He once said that life adds up to a series of decisions - and his must come soon.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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