Asia Pacific

Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore, dies at 91


Singapore’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, died Monday, the prime minister’s office said. He was 91.

“The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. Mr. Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3:18 a.m.,” the office said in a statement released early Monday morning.

Lee, who ruled Singapore from 1959 to 1990, is credited with transforming it from a colonial backwater into one of Southeast Asia’s most advanced and prosperous economies during his three decades in power.

On the other hand, he was also criticized for ruling the city-state with an iron fist and having little tolerance for political dissent, often suing his political opponents.

Lee was born in Singapore in 1923 to Chinese parents in a middle-class family.

He was a teenager when Japan attacked Singapore in 1942, before occupying it until 1945 during World War II.

During the war years he worked for sometime as a cable news editor for Hodobu, the Japanese information and propaganda department.

He wrote in his autobiography that the attitude of the invading Japanese military had a considerable influence on him, but he also had high admiration of the Japanese sense of perfection in pursuing any task.

Soon after the war ended and Singapore returned to British control, he left for Britain to study law at the University of Cambridge. After graduating, he returned to Singapore to work as a lawyer and assisted striking workers.

He became involved in politics and took part in talks with the British colonial government to push for independence.

In 1954, he helped found the People’s Action Party and was elected as Singapore’s prime minister in 1959 at age 35.

Under his leadership, Singapore became Southeast Asia’s wealthiest economy due to policies that were primed to make Singapore the most competitive economy in the region, far ahead of its neighbors.

He oversaw the development of a world-class infrastructure and attracted companies from the United States, Europe and Japan to establish operations in Singapore.

In education, he introduced a bilingual policy, making it compulsory for students to study English at school, along with their own ethnic language, giving Singapore workers an advantage over their peers in most other parts of the region.

But he has been criticized for his high-handed attitude toward dissent and the perceived lack of tolerance toward the media and his political opponents, with tight restrictions on newspaper publications and a ban on street protests.

Even after stepping down from the prime ministership in 1990 in a planned leadership succession, Lee remained an influential figure and traveled widely on official trips as “senior minister” and later “minister mentor” in the Cabinet of his elder son, Lee Hsien Loong.

His party’s strong grip on power appeared to wane in more recent years with declining support from voters during general elections mainly due to dissatisfaction with the high cost of living and the influx of foreigners.

Lee eventually relinquished his last Cabinet post after the PAP’s poor showing in the last general election in 2011 but still remained as a legislator for his Tanjong Pagar constituency, which he has represented throughout his political life.

Lee had been relatively healthy in his old age aside from a heart condition. He was hospitalized briefly in February 2013 because an irregular heartbeat had led to a brief stoppage of blood flow to a part of his brain.

He also suffered from sensory peripheral neuropathy, which impaired the conduction of sensation from his legs to his spinal cord and made his walking unstable.

As his health became frailer in recent years, he seldom appeared in public.

Due to poor health, he did not attend the annual Chinese New Year dinner for his Tanjong Pagar constituency in the last two years.

He had three brothers and a sister. Two of his brothers had died before him.

Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, also a trained lawyer whom he courted and married while studying at Cambridge, died in 2010, after suffering a stroke first in 2003 and then in 2008.

He is survived by his two sons, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, and his only daughter, Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute.