Founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who transformed the country from an obscure third-world nation to a first-rate global hub of commercial activities, has died at the age of 91.
His death was announced in Singapore early Monday but he had been in hospital since February 5 with pneumonia and was in critical condition.
“The prime minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore,” the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement.
His oldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who is prime minister, paid him tribute in an emotional television address saying: “He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him”.
Thousands of people had been leaving flowers and cards at the hospital over the past three days, praying for his recovery. Many reportedly rushed back there when they awoke to the news of his death.
Lee who co-founded Singapore’s ruling party, People’s Action Party, PAP, in 1959, was the country’s prime minister for 31 years after leading the city-state through a merger with and then separation from Malaysia.
Speaking after the split in 1965, he pledged to build a meritocratic, multi-racial nation and deducing that Singapore, a nation with no natural resources, needed a new economic model, Lee who was determined that his country would succeed set about creating a highly educated work force fluent in English, and reached out to foreign investors to turn the developing nation into a manufacturing hub.
The city-state grew wealthy and later developed into a major financial centre.
However, for Lee, building a nation necessitated instituting tight controls and his reforms included a clampdown on the press and other tight measures, such as corporal punishment, a ban on chewing gum and the government’s foray into matchmaking for Singapore’s brightest – to create smarter babies – led to perceptions of excessive state interference.
Lee remained unapologetic about the repressive measures he used to impose order, and unrepentant about believing his prescriptions alone were the right ones.
“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down,” he reportedly stated at a rally in 1980.
Lee was popular for his market-friendly policies but was also criticized locally and internationally for his strict controls over the press, public protest and political opponents.
His leadership of Singapore was seen as a model for developing countries across the world, and politicians of all stripes said they took inspiration from his policies.
Though widely respected as the architect of Singapore’s prosperity, Lee receded from public and political life after retirement, even though he was still seen as an influential figure in the government of his son.
U.S. President Barack Obama described Lee as “a true giant of history” whose advice on governance and economic development had been sought by other world leaders down the years.
“Lee’s views and insights on Asian dynamics and economic management were respected by many around the world, and no small number of this and past generations of world leaders have sought his advice on governance and development,” the U.S president said in a statement.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that he was “deeply saddened” by Lee’s death while the Chinese foreign ministry called him “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia”.
The Singaporean government has declared a period of national mourning until his funeral on Sunday while Lee’s family will hold a private wake in the next two days before moving his body to lie in state at parliament from Wednesday to Saturday.