Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has died on Monday, aged 91, according a government statement.
SINGAPORE (REUTERS) – Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and architect of the tiny Southeast Asian city-state’s rapid rise from British tropical outpost to global trade and financial centre, died on Monday (March 23), aged 91, the government announced.
Although Lee had receded from the public and political scene over the past few years, he was still seen as an influential figure in the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his oldest son.
“Mr Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3.18 A.M,” a statement said.
Lee, a towering figure in post-colonial Asia, oversaw tiny Singapore’s transformation from British tropical outpost to an affluent, global city in just over a generation, setting the example for developing economies from China to Dubai.
He retained English as Singapore’s working language as a means of keeping the peace between the island’s Chinese majority and Malay and Indian minorities and focused very early on in making “clean and green” Singapore, which turns 50 this year, one of Asia’s most liveable and corruption-free countries.
The Cambridge-educated lawyer had little tolerance for opposition views, however, despite the facade of a Westminster-style democracy that gave every adult Singaporean the vote.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), co-founded by Lee, has ruled Singapore since six years before independence, and while it has propelled the city-state into a gleaming financial hub, it has also been criticized for heavy-handed government with little tolerance of dissent.
Under Lee, a huge fan of late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, political opposition and independent media were not allowed to flourish in the same way as the economy, a state of affairs that persists to this day.
Singapore placed 153 out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index.
His stern approach included caning for many offences and the death penalty for murder and drug trafficking. Lawsuits against political opponents and media organisations were a Lee hallmark.
Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, handing power to Goh Chok Tong, but remaining influential as senior minister in Goh’s cabinet and subsequently as “minister mentor” when his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.
The elder Lee resigned from his cabinet position in 2011 after the PAP suffered its worst electoral showing since independence in 1965.
With characteristic bluntness, he summed up his own legacy in the book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”, published in 2011, just before the election.
“It’s irrelevant to me what young Singaporeans think of me,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to know that you may be idealised in life and reviled after you’re dead.”
Diane Mauzy, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said Lee’s enduring legacy was his tough stance on corruption – an endemic problem in many of Singapore’s neighbours.
“(He is) a real rarity in the developing world – and developed too – that has seen public finances and resources squandered by corrupt elites,” she said.
Despite that toughness, he had to fight to hold back tears when Malaysia decided to oust Singapore from their federation in 1965, two years after it had joined.
“For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life,” he told a press conference, pausing as his voice broke down. “You see, the whole of my adult life … I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people, are connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship.”
However, Singapore, on its own, became a huge success as Lee and the PAP welcomed foreign multinationals whose investments and expertise helped turn Singapore into a major exporter, which drew praise from major international powers, including China.
Former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping singled out the city-state’s strong social order and strict controls for special mention when he kickstarted reforms in 1992.
Singapore, which regularly tops the rankings as the best place in the world to do business, nevertheless plays a pervasive role in the lives of its 5.4 million people.
It subsidises public housing where most Singaporeans live, sets rules to preserve harmony among the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities in a place that saw deadly race riots in the 1950s and controls state investor Temasek Holdings, which owns shares in major companies.
Singapore forbids the sale of chewing gum, partly in a bid to keep its pavements clean, and bans pornography even though it has an active legalised sex industry. It has also run public campaigns to promote good spoken English, courtesy, tidiness and dating among single professionals.
Lee, the eldest of four brothers in a middle-class Chinese family, studied at Raffles College in Singapore before getting a first-class law degree from Britain’s Cambridge University.
He married lawyer Kwa Geok Choo in 1950, the same year they set up the law firm Lee & Lee with his younger brother Lee Kim Yew. His wife died aged 89 in 2010 after a long illness.