SINGAPORE, (Reuters) – Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died yesterday aged 91, triggering a flood of tributes to the man who oversaw the tiny city-state’s rapid rise from a British colonial backwater to a global trade and financial centre.
U.S. President Barack Obama described Lee, who ruled Singapore for three decades, as “a true giant of history” whose advice on governance and economic development had been sought by other world leaders down the years.
In his lifetime, Lee drew praise for his market-friendly policies but also criticism at home and abroad for his strict controls over the press, public protest and political opponents.
Lee had receded from public and political life over the past few years, but he was still seen as an influential figure in the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his eldest son.
“The first of our founding fathers is no more. He inspired us, gave us courage, and brought us here,” a choked prime minister Lee said in a live television address on Monday. “To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”
Lee died at 3:18 a.m. (1918 GMT) at Singapore General Hospital, where he had been admitted on Feb. 5 suffering from pneumonia.
The government has declared a period of national mourning until his funeral on Sunday. Lee’s family will hold a private wake in the next two days, then his body will lie in state at parliament from Wednesday to Saturday.
Singaporeans had been bracing for the news for days, and a sea of flowers had already piled up at the hospital where he was being treated.
“I’m so sad. He is my idol. He’s been so good to me, my family and everyone,” said Lua Su Yean, 64. “His biggest achievement is that from zero he’s built up today’s Singapore.”
Lee, a British-educated lawyer, is credited with building Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis with a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.
He was unapologetic for the more draconian side to his leadership and clamping down fiercely on his opponents, saying it was essential for the country’s security.
“We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins,” he said in 1986.
Among other hardline measures, long hair for men was outlawed in the 1970s – the Bee Gees and Led Zeppelin cancelled gigs due to the ban – and chewing gum remains on the forbidden list today. Graffiti is punishable by caning.
“He managed to create a system out of chaos when Singapore was starting out,” said Isaac Seow, 29, outside the hospital. “For me, his most defining trait was his iron will. Love him or hate him, he’s got the job done.”