World leaders have paid tribute to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, one of Asia’s most charismatic post-colonial rulers, who died yesterday aged 91.
Mr Lee, who turned the island city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia into a global manufacturing and finance powerhouse, was mourned by ordinary Singaporeans, who were seen weeping as they left flowers and cards outside the hospital where he died.
Despite his image among many in his country as a father figure, the Cambridge graduate who ruled Singapore for 31 years from 1959 leaves a mixed legacy, with critics saying Singapore’s prosperous and peaceful society came at the cost of free speech and political plurality.
The country’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Mr 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 centre. Although he could have remained in office for much longer, he stepped aside and handed over leadership of the ruling PAP 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.
His son, the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, struggled to hold back tears in a televised address to the nation.
Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English, the prime minister said: “To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”
World leaders paid tribute to Mr Lee, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying “his place in history is assured”.
He said: “Lady Thatcher once said that there was no prime minister she admired more than Mr Lee for ‘the strength of his convictions, the clarity of his views, the directness of his speech and his vision of the way ahead’. His place in history is assured, as a leader and as one of the modern world’s foremost statesmen.”
US President Barack Obama, who met Mr Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009, said his “remarkable” leadership helped build one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
He said Singapore’s success meant that Mr Lee’s opinion was sought by political leaders around the world. Mr Lee was also “hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,” Mr Obama said.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei described Mr Lee as “an Asian politician with unique influence as well as a strategist imbued with eastern values and an international perspective”.
Mr Lee commanded immense respect, and sometimes fear, from Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. He is credited with transforming the resource poor island into a wealthy bustling financial hub with low crime and almost zero corruption.
Under Mr Lee and his successors, Singapore was known around the world for its strict social order including a ban on chewing gum, restrictions on free speech and canings for crimes some countries would rule as minor.
In recent years, it has become socially more liberal and the fragmented political opposition made gains in Singapore’s last elections in 2011.
After stepping down as prime minister, Mr Lee remained part of the Cabinet and an influential figure in Singapore and Asia.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Mr Lee’s “tremendous” role in Singapore’s economic development was beyond doubt. “But it also came at a significant cost for human rights, and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy,” he added.
An increasingly frail Mr Lee was admitted to hospital early last month with severe pneumonia.
The Singapore government has declared seven days of national mourning and flags will fly at half-mast on state buildings. A private wake for the Lee family was taking place yesterday and today at Sri Temasek, the prime minister’s official residence. Mr Lee’s body will lie in state at parliament until a state funeral on Sunday.