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Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Dies at 91
Perspective | 23 March 2015
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Lee Kuan Yew, who helped transform Singapore from a colonial trading center into one of Asia’s most prosperous nations during 31 years as its first elected prime minister, has died. He was 91.

He died at 3:18 a.m. Monday at Singapore General Hospital, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office. He entered the hospital on Feb 5 for pneumonia.

Between 1959 and 1990, Lee steered the city through crises in relations with neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia, clamped down on instability at home and became a strong ally of the U.S.

Economic growth turned Singapore into the world’s largest container port, as well as the biggest producer of oil rigs. Lee’s elder son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004, and said in the statement he’s “deeply grieved.”

“Mr. Lee almost single-handedly built up Singapore into one of the most astonishing economic success stories of our times, and he did so in the face of constant threats to his tiny state’s security and indeed existence,” former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in “Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World,” her 2002 book.

She said Lee became “the most trenchant, convincing and courageous opponent of left-wing Third World nonsense” in the 53 nations that comprise the Commonwealth, an organization with roots in the British Empire.

Political Retreat

Lee ran a tightly controlled state with an economy based on private enterprise, encouraging foreign investment and emphasizing discipline, efficiency, cleanliness, correct public behavior and interracial harmony.

Singapore is the only country in Asia with triple-A ratings from Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings.

Lee retreated from politics after the People’s Action Party that he co-founded won elections in May 2011 with the smallest margin of the popular vote since independence in 1965.

He stepped down from his cabinet position of Minister Mentor a week after the elections and resigned from the party’s top decision-making body in October 2011.

After stepping down as prime minister in 1990, Lee remained prominent in politics and said he would be prepared to speak up on concerns about the direction the city-state is taking.

“Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up,” the Straits Times cited him as saying at the National Day Rally speech in 1988. “Those who believe that after I have left the government as prime minister, I will go into a permanent retirement, really should have their heads examined.”

When Lee was 86, he was diagnosed with sensory peripheral neuropathy, which impaired feeling in his legs, his daughter Lee Wei Ling, a former director at the National Neuroscience Institute in Singapore, wrote in a column in the Sunday Times in November 2011.

Caning Vandals

Critics accused Lee of being overly authoritarian, especially for imposing instant fines for misdemeanors and the death penalty for serious crimes.

Many of the policies remained after Lee stepped down and occasionally led to disputes with other countries.

Singapore caned U.S. citizen Michael Fay in 1994 after he was convicted of vandalizing cars, rejecting a request by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton for clemency.

In December 2005, Singapore executed Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van after former Australian Prime Minister John Howard sought to have the sentence commuted to a prison term.

Foreign correspondents in Singapore ridiculed the government’s efforts to shape the country and its people by calling it a “nanny state,” Lee wrote in his book, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000.” Those efforts made Singapore a better place to live in and if that made it a “nanny state,” then he was “proud to have fostered one,” he said.

Trailing Venezuela

Singapore ranked 153 out of 180 countries in a 2015 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one spot behind Russia and nine after Myanmar.

“He had no overt, effective opposition, not only because he has seen to it that there is none, but also because no rival can match his political skill,” Henry Vincent Hodson, the late editor of the U.K.’s Sunday Times, wrote in his autobiography.

In addition, Lee “has presided over an immense expansion of Singapore’s economy, which is what matters most to nine-tenths of its citizens.”

Singapore ranked as the world’s most competitive economy after the U.S. and Switzerland, according to the World Competitive Yearbook for 2014 published by the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

It was also the easiest place to do business based on the World Bank’s 2015 ranking.

Lee’s influence as a statesman extended beyond Singapore, as he cultivated ties with Asian and world heads of state, including former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and former Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo.

Lee helped mediate the first-ever talks between China and Taiwan in 1993.

Japan Critic

“Lee Kuan Yew is of course by origin Chinese himself: I used to tell him that in many ways I wished he had stayed at home,” Thatcher wrote in her book “The Downing Street Years.” “That way China might have found its way to capitalism 20 years earlier.”

Lee was also critical of what he saw as other countries’ failings. In 2005, amid widespread anger at Japan’s account of its wartime activities in its history textbooks, he said Japan should come to terms with its past.

After stepping down as prime minister, Lee remained an influential cabinet member and roving envoy for Singapore in his role as the nation’s first senior minister.

His successor, Goh Chok Tong, stepped down in favor of Lee’s son in August 2004. Goh became the senior minister and the elder Lee assumed the new cabinet position of minister mentor.

Spurring Tourism

Goh stepped down from his roles in the cabinet and on the People’s Action Party central executive committee at the same time as Lee.

In 2005, Lee endorsed his son’s most controversial decision: to allow the licensing of two casinos. The gaming resorts opened in 2010 and have contributed to a surge in tourist arrivals.

“The greatest challenge to Singapore today is to get our people to move away from the old model, where just being clean, green, efficient, cost effective is not enough,” Lee said in an interview with Bloomberg News in September 2005.

“You’ve also got to be innovative, creative, entrepreneurial. We’ve got to break out into new fields: the arts, new kinds of services.”

Lee Kuan Yew, whose name means “the light that shines far and wide,” was born on Sept. 16, 1923, the eldest of five children of Lee Chin Koon and wife Chua Jim Neo.

A third-generation Straits Chinese, he grew up speaking Malay, English and the Cantonese dialect of his family’s maid. He later taught himself Japanese, Mandarin and Hokkien, a Chinese dialect originating in Fujian province.

Party’s Birth

He studied law at Cambridge University in the U.K., and co-founded the law firm Lee & Lee with his wife.

He served as a legal adviser to Singapore trade unions in the 1950s before co-founding the People’s Action Party in 1954. The party still governs Singapore.

Lee didn’t choose politics, Alex Josey wrote in “Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years.” Rather, he was thrown into the arena by the shock of Japan’s occupation of Singapore in the 1940s.

“The Japanese brought politics to me,” Josey quoted Lee as saying.

“I was a product of the times, the war, the occupation, the reoccupation, my four years in Britain, admiring but at the same time questioning whether they are able to do a better job than we can,” Lee said.

He escaped death during the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation and again in an accident in 1951 when his car, carrying him and his pregnant wife, skidded and rolled over two times before landing on soft grass instead of nearby water pipes.

Early Strife

Lee was elected prime minister in May 1959, four years after the British granted the island limited self-government; his People’s Action Party won 43 of 51 parliamentary seats. In 1963, the city was amalgamated with Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya into the newly independent country of Malaysia.

The combination wasn’t a happy one, with tensions breaking out between ethnic Chinese, a majority in Singapore, and ethnic Malays, who controlled the rest of the country.

There were race riots in 1964, and on Aug. 9, 1965, Singapore was expelled from the Malayan Federation. In a rare display of emotion, Lee wept as he declared Singapore independent in a televised speech.

“He built Singapore,” Mahathir Mohamad, 89, Malaysia’s longest-serving leader, said in an Aug 7, 2012 interview with Bloomberg Television. “With his leadership, Singapore grew to become a very rich nation. But of course, one should never overstay. I think he did not let go of the reins, that’s his problem.”

For at least the first decade of Singapore’s independence, the city’s small size and instability in neighboring nations led to concerns about its viability as an independent state.

“Don’t worry about Singapore,” Lee told then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson later that month. “My colleagues and I are sane, rational people even in our moments of anguish. We weigh all possible consequences before we make any move on the political chessboard.”

Coup Next-Door

In neighboring Indonesia, General Suharto took power in a 1965 coup. The Vietnam War was gaining momentum and raising the specter of the spread of communism through the region. In 1968, at a time when Lee was concerned the island could be attacked by its neighbors, the U.K. announced the withdrawal of its troops.

“We overcame one problem only to be faced with an even more daunting one,” Lee wrote in “From Third World to First,” his autobiography. “There were times when it looked hopeless.”

Lee traveled to the U.K. and successfully appealed for a delay in the troop pullout. He then embarked on an aggressive program to develop Singapore’s armed forces, bringing in Israeli military advisers and instituting compulsory national service.

Boosting Economy

At the same time, Lee’s government moved to develop key industries. The government fostered the development of electronics and chemical industries and set up the Housing and Development Board, which undertook a comprehensive public-housing construction program.

Restrictions on public assembly and other measures were also used to reduce the risk of inter-racial conflicts.

The 1974 creation of Temasek Holdings Pte helped bolster the economy. The state-owned investment company holds strategic stakes in businesses such as Singapore Airlines, DBS Group Holdings, Southeast Asia’s biggest bank, and the port.

Economic Growth

From 1976 to 2014, the city-state’s gross domestic product expanded at an average annual rate of 6.9 percent as the government promoted trade and drew overseas investment.

Per-capita GDP surged more than 50-fold to $71,318 ($51,717) from 1960 to 2014, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.

Temasek had a record $223 billion portfolio as of March 31, 2014 and is run by Ho Ching, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife.

“In 1965, I could not, and nobody could, imagine the developments in the world,” Lee said in the 2005 Bloomberg interview. “So, I would say every chance, every tide, every wind, every surf that came our way, we tried to ride on it. And that’s how we got here.”

Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, died on Oct 2, 2010, at 89. In addition to the current prime minister and their daughter, the couple had a son, Lee Hsien Yang, former chairman of Fraser & Neave.

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