We’re all individuals now

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We’re all individuals now

In the fall of 1983, a few months before my university graduation, I was among the successful applicants to join Hyundai Group. The other applicants and I were invited to an assembly at its new headquarters building in Jongro, downtown Seoul. We were chatting away, leaning against the wall of the building, when an official from the administration department approached us and said, “This building could collapse if you all lean on it because it was built very rapidly to meet the construction deadline.”

Our nerves on that first day were eased by his joke. It was a witty mocking of the conglomerate’s signature ethos of getting things done very quickly. The chief executive of Hyundai Engineering and Construction at the time was Lee Myung-bak, nicknamed the “bulldozer,” who recently concluded his term as president.

Fortunately, the building remains intact.

Lee, a true champion of velocity, did not give up on his battle with speed after he became the president. During the five years of his term, he woke up at 5 a.m. every day and worked till late. He and his people worked a famously over-zealous schedule. Because of their work style, they tended to aim for national-level goals rather than focussing on ways to improve the lives of individual Koreans. The country’s overall economic performance remained among the top in the OECD countries despite a global economic slowdown, but the number of decent jobs available declined. People also became less happier with a deepening of economic polarization.

Efficiency mattered most to Lee. In his inaugural speech five years ago, the word “people” came up 30 times. “People” was emphasized in order to highlight the importance of a collective effort to accomplish efficiency in governance. The noun “people” can connote legal and ethical obligations as a national unit.

At the same time, it can discourage individualism and undermine the uniqueness and exclusiveness of individual lives and efforts. It may not be a coincidence that people critical of Lee were spied upon during his term and the role of the National Human Rights Commission was undermined.

New President Park Geun-hye is even more partial to the word “people.” It popped up 57 times in her inaugural address. Although the good intentions behind the rhetoric can not be denied - “Individual happiness can amount to national power,” she said - we can only fear the negative influences or effects.

The “people” finally had an opportunity to rediscover themselves as valuable individuals through the dawn of a modern light when the 500-year-old Joseon feudal dynasty slowly collapsed in the early 20th century. But monarchy was quickly replaced by colonial rule. After the liberation from the Japanese, the country endured a forced bisection, war and a dizzily paced industrialization. During a time of such turbulence, individual rights were often victimized, ignored and violated. We were brainwashed to work as a collective unit.

Collectiveness enforces uniformity and simplification in order to restrain individualism and achieve national goals. It precipitated economic growth that brought us to where we are today. But the success is limited or partial. Individual reason and conscience slowly died. Where there is no “I” there can be no other. Diversity and tolerance were replaced by selfishness and greed. The roots of democracy planted in the late 1980s remain weak today because of the legacy of collectivity.

President Park stressed culture as one of the key pillars to her governance. An economy that prizes efficiency alone cannot push the country onto a solid, advanced tier. But her compound term “cultural prosperity” does not fit in today’s context. Culture should be free to flow; prosperity implies some sort of state control and guidance. Independence and individualism can naturally help a cultural habitat blossom. That is how our society can evolve from “Homo Economicus” to “Homo Ludens,” where people can genuinely enjoy the joy of living. And believe in that as a main point of life.

When we are bundled under the collective noun “people,” we have to surrender ourselves to collective goals while losing our individual passions and inventiveness. The president can call us the people. But she must address each and every one of us as a special and extraordinary individual. We now desire a leader who sees us as individual beings with unique value. President Park promised to deliver us an age of happiness. To do so, she must let us be our true selves.

By Lee Ha-kyung

The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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