National / Politics

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was among 'greatest leaders,' Abe says

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Government representatives paid tribute Monday to the life and legacy of Singaporean senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling him “one of the greatest leaders of modern times that Asia has produced.”

Abe credited Lee with laying the foundations for the city-state’s prosperity through his political engagement spanning more than half a century.

“Offering heartfelt condolences, I’d like to express my sympathy with the bereaved family, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and the people of Singapore,” Abe told reporters at his office.

He described Lee as the “founding father” of Singapore.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also issued a statement mourning Lee’s passing. He lauded Singapore’s first prime minister for elevating it into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest states.

Lee is widely credited with transforming Singapore into one of Southeast Asia’s most developed economies during his rule as prime minister from 1959 to 1990.

He died early Monday at Singapore General Hospital at the age of 91. He was hospitalized in February with severe pneumonia and his condition had deteriorated in recent days.

In a message of condolence to Prime Minister Lee, the eldest son of the late leader, Abe paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew’s domestic and international achievements.

“With his incomparable leadership and unparalleled insights, His Excellency Mr. Lee Kuan Yew played, for more than half a century and throughout his life, a key role not only in achieving Singapore’s remarkable economic growth and prosperity but also in securing peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region and the world. He was highly revered all over the world,” the message said.

“The demise of such a great leader is indeed a great loss not only to your country, but also to the entire international community.”

A state funeral will be held Sunday at the National University of Singapore, the Singaporean prime minister’s office said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan will send an “appropriate dignitary” to attend the funeral.

Meanwhile, Abe’s statement went on to praise Lee’s prominent role in the development of bilateral relations.

“(Mr. Lee), during and after his tenure as prime minister, frequently visited Japan, including his state visit to Japan in 1968, and made outstanding contributions in the advancement of . . . today’s good and close relations between Singapore and Japan,” the statement said. “I still vividly remember how much I was impressed by his profound wisdom, including when I met him in person in 2014.”

For about a year during World War II, Lee worked in Singapore for Hodobu, the Japanese information and propaganda department. Japan invaded Singapore in 1942 and occupied it until 1945.

During his time in office, Lee looked to the management approach of Japanese firms as he sought to industrialize a small nation lacking natural resources.

He also often compared Japan and Singapore. In a speech in January 2011, Lee stressed the need to accept immigrants in light of Singapore’s low birthrate.

“We will rapidly age and shrink” as the birthrate falls, Lee said. “We need young immigrants. Otherwise our economy will slow down, like the Japanese economy. We will have a less dynamic and less thriving Singapore. . . . Hence, we need to be welcoming of new immigrants and help integrate them into Singapore society.”

In a book published in 2013, titled “One Man’s View of the World,” Lee said the demographic challenge is the most serious problem facing Japan.

“Its population is rapidly aging and not replacing itself. All its other problems — a stagnating economy and weak political leadership — pale in comparison,” Lee wrote. “If Japan does not solve its demographic problem, its future will be very grim.”

Lee added: “Singapore’s problem with low birthrates is not dissimilar from Japan’s. But there is one key difference: we have shaded our problem with immigrants.”