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Funeral Sunday for Singaporean Leader Who Others Tried to Emulate

FILE - Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) smiles as he attends the LKY School of Public Policy 7th anniversary dialogue session in Singapore September 14, 2011.

Dozens of world leaders, including the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan, the president of South Korea, and Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao, will be in Singapore on Sunday for the state funeral of the small country's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee served as a role model for Asian politicians hoping to reproduce the magic that took Singapore from a colonial backwater to one of the world's most prosperous and efficient nations.

Lee died Monday at the age of 91 following a long illness. His casket is lying in state at Singapore's Parliament House through Saturday to allow the public to pay its last respects. Thousands lined the streets Wednesday as the flag-draped casket was slowly towed for hours on a gun carriage from Istana (the official residence of the largely ceremonial president) to Parliament House, where mourners patiently waited in a queue stretching two kilometers.

Lee served as prime minister from 1959, when Britain granted self rule, taking Singapore in and out of a troubled union with Malaysia before declaring independence in 1965. Lee stepped down in 1990 after becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the world. But he kept the leadership of his dominant People's Action Party until 1992 and in subsequent years remained Singapore's supreme figure as senior minister and then minister mentor.

His son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004 and is still in that post.

One of the senior Lee's many admirers is former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun who said that as a Southeast Asian, he feels “a great sense of loss.”

“His wisdom, his advice, his insight have always been sought by leaders of other nations,” said Anand, who served as Thailand's prime minister in the early 1990's.

The current Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a coup last year, somewhat puzzlingly lamented Lee had worked too hard all his life and this is why the nonagenarian had died too young.

The retired general is to attend Lee's funeral where he might run into the man whose influence he wants to permanently eradicate from Thai politics -- self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by the military in 2006 and a Lee protege, who sought to create a "Thailand Inc." in the image of his Asian mentor's "Singapore Inc."

Others from Asia, so far, also confirming their attendance at Sunday's state funeral: the presidents of Indonesia and Myanmar and the prime minister of Cambodia.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, issued a statement saying he was deeply saddened by Lee's death, calling him “a legendary figure in Asia.”

Autocrats in Asia envied Lee's ability to maintain a one-party government in a nanny state that eschewed liberalism, except for economic policies.

Curtis Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said in a VOA interview in Bangkok many of the Singaporean's less successful fellow leaders in the region failed to absorb his most important lessons.

“So when we think about what others can learn from Lee Kwan Yew they may be citing some things,” said Chin. “But unfortunately too many leaders of Asia today have not learned about the rule of law, the good governance, the accountability, the battle against corruption that Lee Kwan Yew also was all about.”

Contrasting Lee with authoritarian-style leader Mathathir Mohamad, who led neighboring Malaysia as prime minister between 1981 and 2003, Robert D. Kaplan, in his 2014 book Asia's Cauldron, assessed the Singaporean as constituting a “more worthy model of leadership... without Mahathir's decidedly nasty prejudices and petty meanness while harboring a more acute strategic vision.”

Lee, a well-educated pragmatist, rejected the notion of an “Asian model” for development but articulated Asian values that, in his eyes, made individual rights subservient to collective security and growth.

Thus it is no surprise that over the decades many of China's leaders expressed admiration for the rapid transformation of Singapore under the leadership of Mr. Lee, an ethnic Hakka Chinese whose ancestral home is in Meizhou in southern China's Guangdong province.

Lee made “historical contributions to the bilateral relationship” between Beijing and Singapore, said China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

“Lee Kuan Yew is a uniquely influential statesman in Asia. And he is also a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision,” said Hong.

The leader of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party, Eric Chu, noted Lee "offered Taiwan many of his ideas on city management."

At home, Lee gave direction to ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians who had been under British and then Japanese colonial rule on a crowded little island.

“So when countries try to take some of the things that have been done, it hasn't worked and may not work in a country of much bigger size,” said Chin, now an Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute.

Lee guided his small nation to independence at a turbulent time in the mid-1960's. Besides continuing animosity with Malaysia, the neighborhood faced ethnic, religious and territorial problems, not to mention the Vietnam War, when Singapore agreed in 1967 with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"For Lee Kuan Yew to play that kind of role, and if you want to make economic progress, you have to make things stable politically" and he accomplished that amid great risk, recalled associate professor Li Kui-Wai of the economics and finance department at City University of Hong Kong.

Speaking before parliament Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is also to attend Lee's funeral, noted the Singaporean "spurred this country at a critical time in our history," a reference to Lee's 1980 comment that Australia was in danger of becoming the "poor white trash" of Asia.

Not all of the assessments of Lee's legacy this week have been laudatory.

There is a “dark side to what he leaves behind - too often, basic freedoms and human rights were sacrificed to ensure economic growth,” commented Rupert Abbott, Southeast Asia director for the non-governmental organization Amnesty International. “Restrictions on freedom of expression and the silencing of criticism is still part of the daily reality for Singaporeans.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, acknowledges Lee's “tremendous role in Singapore's economic development is beyond doubt.” But he questioned whether the city-state can now have “that long overdue conversation” about political liberalization.

Former ambassador Chin asserts that Singapore “is evolving and must now face the reality of social media,” which is not as restrained as the country's licensed and controlled traditional news outlets that refrain from criticizing the leadership and government in the country of 5.5 million people.

Lee's admirers and detractors do agree on one thing: the father of modern Singapore was a uniquely talented and successful statesman whose influence extended far beyond his relatively modest domain.

Some material for this report was supplied by the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies.

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