Accessibility links

Lee Kuan Yew, Founder of Modern Singapore, Dies at 91

  • Ron Corben

Sarah Kee, 61, of Singapore, wipes her tears at an area set aside for tributes to former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the hospital where he passed away, Monday, March 23, 2015 in Singapore. Kee remembers waving to Lee's motorcade daily as it p

Sarah Kee, 61, of Singapore, wipes her tears at an area set aside for tributes to former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the hospital where he passed away, Monday, March 23, 2015 in Singapore. Kee remembers waving to Lee's motorcade daily as it p

Thousands of mourners gathered outside the prime minister's official residence in Singapore to lay flowers and pay their respects to the country's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, who died early Monday at the age of 91.

Lee was hospitalized in early February with severe pneumonia and later placed on life support.

Singapore's prime minister's office said Lee "passed away peacefully."

The government has declared seven days of national mourning that will end with his funeral next Sunday.

A private family wake will take place Monday and Tuesday. His body will be transported Wednesday to Parliament House, where it will lie in state for the public to pay respects until his funeral and cremation.

To many, Lee 'was Singapore'

His son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, fought back tears in a televised address to the nation Monday, saying his father "inspired us, gave us courage, and brought us here. To many ... Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore."

Lee was Singapore’s leader from 1959 until 1990, but remained a highly influential figure and a strategist on the city-state’s economy.

Lee became Singapore's first prime minister when it gained full self-governance from Britain's colonial rule. He remained the country's driving force long after his retirement three decades later.

After meeting Lee at the White House in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama called the former prime minister "one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries."

Sunday, the White House praised Lee as a "visionary" who built "one of the most prosperous countries in the world today." It also described him as "a true giant of history who will be remembered ... as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs."

The president said he joined Singaporeans in mourning Lee's death.

Fourth-generation Singaporean

“Harry” Lee Kuan Yew, a fourth-generation Singaporean whose ancestors migrated from China’s Guangdong Province in the 1860s, played a primary role in guiding the island state’s post-colonial era toward economic success.

A survivor of the Japanese Imperial Army’s occupation of Singapore, Lee studied economics in London after the war and attended Cambridge University, gaining a law degree.

His political life began in 1954 with the formation the People’s Action Party (PAP), a coalition of middle-class and pro-communist trade unionists. In 1955, Lee was the opposition leader in the legislature. But splits within the PAP with the party’s left wing led to arrests of pro-communists in 1957.

The PAP won an electoral landslide in1959, and Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister, a position he held until 1990 before taking a post of senior minister.

Carl Thayer, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said Lee was pivotal to Singapore’s long-term future.

“The story of modern day Singapore can’t be told without reference to Lee Kwan Yew," Thayer said. "He took the country from colonial rule to independence. He fended off challenges from the socialist left and then he dominated politics.”

Political challenges

Lee faced political challenges as prime minister. An early goal was the formation of a Federation of Malaysia bringing together Singapore, Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak.

But differences soon emerged between Peninsular Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee, especially after race riots between Chinese and Muslims in 1964 and again in 1965. And on August 9, 1965, Abdul Rahman called for separation.

“There have been differences between the central government and the leader of the Singapore state government," Abdul Rahman said. "And these differences take so many forms and are so many kinds that it has not been possible to resolve them and so we decided we must part company.”

Historians say Lee opposed Abdul Rahman’s favoring local Malays over ethnic Chinese. Lee was distraught with news of the separation.

“You see the whole of my adult life I believed in the Malaysia merger and the unity of these two territories. You know some connection by geography and ties of kinship ... would you mind if we stopped for a while,” he said.

Lee worked hard on economic growth to build the Republic and to foster unity. “I am not here to play someone else’s game. I have a few million people’s lives to account for and Singapore will survive.”

Analysts say Lees’ strengths lay in setting standards and objectives, a “strategic thinker” promoting Singapore’s most valuable resource -- its people.

Foreign investment followed. With economic growth running often at near 10 percent over the decades, Lee helped define a model of capitalist development that was also adopted by the so-called “Asian Tigers”: Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Modern city-state

As the country industrialized, Singapore rose as a modern city-state, says Michael Barr, a political scientist at Flinders University in South Australia.

“One of Lee Kuan Yew’s great achievements, I think -- his positive legacies -- is how he recognized and built on Singapore’s natural advantages, and capitalized on them in a way that really is exceptional,” Barr said.

Singapore became the world’s busiest seaport, only recently eclipsed by Shanghai. Investment flowed into oil refining, development as a regional transport hub; a national airline to reach global prominence and a banking sector as a vital part in global financial markets.

Barr said Lee also brought together key administrators able to chart Singapore’s future development.

Despite Singapore's massive growth and booming prosperity, Lee faced decades of criticism from opponents who objected to his authoritarian rule. But Lee insisted that strict limits on public protest and other forms of free speech were necessary to build and maintain stability.

In his memoirs, Lee was unapologetic. "We inherited the island without a hinterland, a heart without a body. ...

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine," he said. "I’ve spent a whole life in building this and as long as I am in charge, nobody’s going to knock it down.”

Over the course of his rule, he brought defamation lawsuits against journalists and opposition politicians, including former newspaper editor Said Zahari, who spent 17 years in prison without trial. In 1987, 22 Roman Catholic Church officials, social activists and other professionals were accused of a left-wing conspiracy and jailed.

Human rights

At the height of Lee's power, a number of his political opponents either went bankrupt or fled into exile, after facing court orders to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in defamation damages to Lee and his close associates.

He also formulated a policy that urged educated Singaporeans to inter-marry and produce smart offspring. He once banned the sale of chewing gum and criticized the public for spitting in the streets of the city.

A statement from Human Rights Watch also acknowledged Lee's "tremendous role" in Singapore's economic development, saying his contributions are "beyond doubt." But HRW-Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said those accomplishments "came at a significant cost for human rights."

Robertson cited current restrictions on freedom of expression and "stunted multi-party democracy" as parts of Lee's legacy that "Singapore now needs to overcome. Perhaps that long overdue conversation can finally proceed," he said.

Singapore remains a country where the state exercises tight controls over speech. In 2014, Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Survey, ranked Singapore among the lowest countries in southeast Asia for press freedoms, behind Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Show comments