Singapore mourns as founding father Lee Kuan Yew dies at 91
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died early this morning after more than a month in hospital, leaving a legacy of an unlikely country he steered to independence in 1965 and transformed into a global city within one generation.
Lee was 91. He had been on a mechanical ventilator for several weeks since February 5, suffering from severe pneumonia. His condition took a turn for the worse earlier last week after an infection set in. Before that, he was semi-conscious and could respond to people, said a source close to the family.
A statement from the office of the current Prime Minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, said, “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 3:18am.”
Kerry Group controlling shareholder, Robert Kuok, a life-long friend of Lee, paid tribute to “a giant of a man’’.
“All of us who have known him, feel greatly distressed and saddened by his passing,’’ said Kuok, who was a schoolmate of Lee at Singapore’s Raffles College.
“Lee Kuan Yew was a giant of a man. His mind, sharp as a fine blade, was focused on pursuing his wish of establishing a just, fair and decent society. And no-one, whether friend or foe, can deny that he achieved this.
“He pursued his aim with great determination, never giving in to the many set-backs and disappointments, with all this taking a heavy toll on his health. However, he still lived to a remarkable old age and retained his mental faculties until the very end. May he rest in peace.’’
Kuok is the biggest shareholder in SCMP Group which publishes the South China Morning Post.
Coming less than 5 months before the republic celebrates its 50th anniversary, Lee’s death is likely to unleash a bout of nostalgic soul-searching rather than any serious political or economic uncertainty. Although a central part of Singaporeans’ lives for five decades, he has faded from view in recent years, retiring from Cabinet in 2011.
A lawyer by profession, Lee and his compatriots formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954. When Singapore was granted self-rule in 1959, he became its first prime minister, remaining in that position until 1990, when he completed a transition to a second generation of leaders. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s third and current Prime Minister.
In his 31 years as premier, Lee was indisputably a transformative leader. He dealt decisively with leftists and communalists, those who pursued race-based politics to divide society. He led Singapore to an ill-fated merger with Malaysia in 1963. When it was evicted from the Malaysian federation in 1965, he found himself in charge of a city state that suddenly had independence thrust upon it.
Obsessed with independent Singapore’s questionable economic viability and its vulnerability, Lee ruled with an iron will that intruded heavily into people’s lives as he went about trying to remake the economy, uplift lives, change social habits such as spitting in public and smoking, force racial integration among the four main races and, at one time, even pushing citizens to marry and procreate. Such policies became the grist for Singapore’s reputation as a tightly regulated “nanny state”.
In his memoirs, The Singapore Story, Lee said if he had not done these things, Singapore would have been a “grosser, ruder, cruder society” and it was to ensure it became a cultivated, civilised society in the shortest possible time. “First, we educated and exhorted our people. After we had persuaded and won over a majority, we legislated to punish the wilful minority. It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live in. If this is a ‘nanny state’, I am proud to have fostered one,” he wrote.
He had little patience for civil liberties that might get in the way of decisive government. Hong Kong based news magazines Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek were among those that felt the brunt of his strong-armed tactics against the press. A string of defamation suits have left a legacy of opposition parties that measure their criticism with unusual care.
Lee also harboured views about race that sections of Singaporeans found hard to accept. His deep belief in man’s innate versus acquired intelligence and his ruthlessness when it came to taking down opponents garnered him critics at home and abroad. He was unapologetic, defending all that he did in the name of furthering the cause of Singapore.
Lee and his colleagues led a country comprising many first- or second-generation immigrants or their offspring, one that was poor, with inadequate sanitation and woeful living conditions for the most part. Today, Lee’s son helms a different nation made up of an educated, more demanding electorate seeking greater accountability and choice in their political representatives.
The result has been a more politically contentious environment. Still, the People’s Action Party has remained in power for a continuous 56 years, the longest record for any party currently in power.
Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a close personal friend, was among world leaders who paid tribute: “I consider Lee Kuan Yew one of the greatest leaders I have ever met. He took a seaport which had lost its original purpose and transformed it into one of the most significant creative efforts of his period… Since Singapore lacks natural resources, he accomplished all this by relying on the scope of his vision and the quality and determination of his people.”
Lee was more circumspect when he looked back on his life. “I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life,” he once said.
Kissinger also said he considered it “one of the great blessings of my life that we became personal friends”. In Hong Kong, among the friends mourning Lee’s passing was engineer Mr George Ko, whose life is linked to Lee’s by chance and circumstance. Ko’s late grandfather was an immigrant rickshaw puller from the Hock Chia clan. He ferried the young Lee in Singapore. During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the grandfather, Koh Teong Koo, kept Lee safe at a Hock Chia dormitory and he narrowly avoided being sent away and killed by the Japanese out on their anti-Chinese raids.
Ko, who works for Singtel, a Singapore telco, told the Post: “I feel sad about the passing of a great leader. He built Singapore up in one generation. I hope his successor will protect his achievements.”
In Singapore, the Prime Minister’s office said the arrangements for the public to pay respects and the funeral proceedings will be announced soon.