Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who transformed the island country from a small port city into a wealthy global hub, has died at the age of 91.
Lee Kuan Yew served as the city-state’s prime minister for 31 years, and continued to work in government until 2011.
Highly respected as the architect of Singapore’s prosperity, Lee Kuan Yew was also criticized for his iron grip on power.
Under Lee Kuan Yew freedom of speech was tightly restricted and political opponents were targeted by the courts.
“The prime minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore,” his office said in a statement.
It said Lee Kuan Yew died peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital at 03:18 local time on March 23.
Lee Kuan Yew had been in hospital for several weeks with severe pneumonia. Over the weekend, people left tributes and messages of goodwill at the hospital as his condition deteriorated.
A charismatic and unapologetic figure, Lee Kuan Yew co-founded the People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since 1959, and was its first prime minister.
The Cambridge-educated lawyer led Singapore through merger with, and then separation from, Malaysia – something that he described as a “moment of anguish”.
Speaking at a press conference after the split in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew pledged to build a meritocratic, multi-racial nation.
But tiny Singapore – with no natural resources – needed a new economic model.
“We knew that if we were just like our neighbors, we would die,” Lee Kuan Yew told the New York Times in 2007.
“Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have.”
Through investment in schooling, Lee Kuan Yew set about creating a highly-educated work force fluent in English.
He reached out to foreign investors to turn Singapore into a manufacturing hub, introducing incentives to attract foreign companies.
The city-state grew wealthy and later developed into a major financial centre. But building a nation came with tight controls – and one of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacies was a clampdown on the press.
These restrictions remain today. In 2014, Singapore stood at 150 in the Reports Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, below countries like Russia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
Dissent – and political opponents – were ruthlessly quashed.
Today Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP remains firmly in control. There are currently six opposition lawmakers in parliament.
Other 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. However, Lee Kuan Yew remained unmoved.
“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up,” Lee Kuan Yew told a rally in 1980.
“I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”
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