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.
US 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 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. “To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”
The government declared a period of national mourning until his funeral on Sunday.
Singaporeans had been bracing for the news for days, and a sea of flowers had already piled up at the Singapore General Hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia.
“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.”
In keeping with Lee’s famously no-nonsense, pragmatic approach, business carried on as normal throughout the city, one of the world’s leading wealth management centers.
Hundreds of office workers queued at lunchtime in the central business district to buy a commemorative issue of the Straits Times newspaper.
At the stock exchange, the message “Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, 16 September 1923 to 23 March 2015” replaced the normal stream of news and market prices displayed on a bank of video.
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 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 the sale of chewing gum remains forbidden. Graffiti is punishable by caning.