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 early on Monday, aged 91, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
“Mr Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3.18 am,” a statement on the prime minister’s Facebook page said.
Mr Lee, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, is widely credited with building Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis with a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.
He co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since 1959 and led the newly born country when it was separated from Malaysia in 1965.
Mr Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital on Feb. 5 for severe pneumonia and was later put on life support.
Barack Obama said after meeting the still-healthy Mr Lee at the White House in October 2009 that “this is one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries”.
He had set Singapore on a path that has seen average incomes rise 100 times, with investments across the globe, a widely respected civil service and world-class infrastructure.
But he was criticised for his iron-fisted rule, forcing several opposition politicians into bankruptcy or exile, and once invoked Machiavelli in declaring: “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
Mr Lee’s political career spanned 30 years as premier and 20 years as senior government adviser.
But in his last years, he was a shadow of his old self as his health deteriorated following his beloved wife’s death in October 2010.
He remained revered by many but also became the target of scathing attacks in social media as some Singaporeans began to muster the courage to speak out against him and the political and social model he had bequeathed.
The statement from the Prime Minister’s Office that was posted on Facebook
His impact, through his policies and via his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is likely to be felt for years to come.
Lee Kuan Yew first became prime minister after Britain granted Singapore self-rule in 1959 prior to its stormy post-colonial union with Malaysia.
Born to a 20-year-old father whom he described as a “rich man’s son, with little to show for himself” and a 16-year-old bride in an arranged marriage, Mr Lee grew up thinking British colonial rulers were invincible.
He had a rude awakening during World War II after Japanese invaders easily overran British forces and took over Singapore in 1942, shattering the myth of European supremacy in Asia.
“The dark ages had descended on us. It was brutal, cruel,” Mr Lee said of the Japanese occupation, calling it “the biggest single political education of my life because, for three and a half years, I saw the meaning of power”.
Mr Lee survived massacres of civilians and at one point worked for Japanese propaganda. After liberation, he left to study law at Cambridge, where he secretly wed his classmate Kwa Geok Choo before returning home in 1950.
Queen Elizabeth II shares a toast with Singapore’s then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in 2006 (AP)
He was shaken by Kwa’s passing after more than 60 years of marriage and admitted that “at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief”.
They had three children, the oldest of whom is Lee Hsien Loong. Daughter Lee Wei Ling became a doctor, and son Lee Hsien Yang became a top corporate figure.
Mr Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and handed power to his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who in turn gave way to the veteran leader’s elder son in 2004.
In 2011, he stepped down as a cabinet adviser after the ruling People’s Action Party suffered its worst performance yet in a general election, its share of the vote falling to a low of 60 percent.
The Prime Minister’s Office said arrangements for the public to pay respects and funeral arrangements will be announced later.
Report by Reuters.