Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's influential first prime minister, dies at 91

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's influential first prime minister, dies at 91

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Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew led the country for 31 years.
Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew led the country for 31 years.
Photo: AP

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A woman and her daughters mourn the passing of Lee Kuan Yew at a well-wishing corner at the Singapore General Hospital
A woman and her daughters mourn the passing of Lee Kuan Yew at a well-wishing corner at the Singapore General Hospital
Photo: Reuters

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The Singapore state flag is flown at half-mast at the Parliament building.
The Singapore state flag is flown at half-mast at the Parliament building.
Photo: Reuters

Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore who was both feared for his authoritarian tactics and admired worldwide for turning the city-state into one of the world's richest nations while in power for 31 years, died Monday. He was 91.

Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital on Feb. 5 for severe pneumonia and was later put on life support.

The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement posted on its website that Lee "passed away peacefully" at the hospital at 3:18 a.m. Monday.

The country's first and longest-serving prime minister, Lee guided Singapore through a traumatic split with Malaysia in 1965 and led the transformation of what was then a sleepy port city into a global trade and finance center. Although he could have remained in office for much longer, he stepped aside and handed over leadership of the ruling party, and the country, to a younger generation in 1990. Still, he remained an influential behind-the-scenes figure for many more years until his health deteriorated.

"In the end, my greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fact that I have spent years gathering support, mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races — and that it will endure beyond me, as it has," Lee said in his 2013 book, One Man's View of the World.

Lee meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in October 2009
Photo: AP

President Barack Obama called Lee a "visionary" and "true giant of history."

"Lee's views and insights on Asian dynamics and economic management were respected by many around the world," Obama said in a statement. "No small number of this and past generations of world leaders have sought his advice on governance and development."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply saddened" by Lee's death. He noted that Singapore is marking its 50th anniversary of independence this year, and "its founding father will be remembered as one of the most inspiring Asian leaders," according to a statement released by Ban’s spokesman.

Ban said Lee helped Singapore "transition from a developing country to one of the most developed in the world, transforming it into a thriving international business hub."


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Lee's legacy includes an efficient government with little corruption, a successful public housing scheme, low tax rates to attract foreign investment, excellent schools and clean and safe streets, all of which have helped Singapore rank consistently near the top of surveys of the most livable cities for expatriates.

He faced criticism, though, for using tough tactics to consolidate power. He jailed some political rivals without trial for decades and brought defamation lawsuits against journalists and opposition politicians, which had a chilling effect on dissent.

Lee insisted that strict limits on free speech and public protest were necessary to maintain stability in a multiethnic and multi-religious country that witnessed race riots in the 1960s. That stability, he added, was needed to enable growth and raise living standards in a country with few natural resources.

"I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial," Lee said in an interview with The New York Times published in September 2010. "I'm not saying everything I did was right. But everything I did was for an honorable purpose."

Lee, whose People's Action Party has ruled Singapore since 1959, remained a powerful adviser with Cabinet minister status after stepping down as prime minister, and many Singaporeans, particularly older ones, viewed him as a wise, if strict, father figure.

Lee gave up his Cabinet minister post and resigned from the executive committee of the People's Action Party after 2011 parliamentary elections in which the ruling party won its lowest overall vote percentage since independence.

An undated photo from Singapore's current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong's Facebook page of his parents
Photo: Facebook.com/leehsienloong

One of his sons, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s current prime minister. He also is survived by another son, Lee Hsien Yang, and a daughter, neurologist Lee Wei Ling. His wife of more than 60 years, Kwa Geok Choo, died in October 2010.

The government declared seven days of national mourning and ordered flags to fly at half-staff on state buildings. 

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