Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of modern Singapore and one of the most influential global leaders of the 20th century, has died aged 91, half a century after he led the tiny Asian city-state to independence in 1965.
Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee ruled the island nation from 1959 for three decades, overseeing its transformation from tropical Southeast Asian backwater in the declining years of British colonial rule, into one of the most remarkable economic success stories of the 20th century.
He combined an authoritarian streak and appetite for social engineering with a determination to cement Singapore’s status as the most business-friendly location in the region, by eliminating corruption and building a politically neutral jurisdiction based on the British legal system.
That helped propel Singapore from an economically deprived port city of the 1950s with per-capita gross domestic product of just $550 to an Asian financial powerhouse with gross domestic product per capita of $55,000, according to the World Bank.
On the international stage, Lee’s sharp intellect meant his advice was sought by US presidents from Lyndon B Johnson to Barack Obama, and by European leaders such as Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor with whom he remained close.
Lee was one of the first to spot the potential of China under Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader whose pro-market reforms unleashed the economic juggernaut that is now the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms.
But it is as the architect of modern Singapore, an island with a population of a small mainland Chinese city, that he will be remembered. He led Singapore out of a shortlived union with the Malayan Federation in 1965, two years after breaking colonial ties with Britain.
“He will go down in history as the moderniser of Singapore and the leader who pulled it all together,” says Michael Barr, associate professor at the School of International Studies at Australia’s Flinders University.
Mr Obama paid tribute to Lee as a “visionary”.
“He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs,” he said in a statement.
Singaporeans responded with quiet grief on Monday as the government declared six days of national mourning.
Foreign investment has flooded into Singapore, much of it by multinationals such as Procter & Gamble, Caterpillar and Google, seeking to use the city as a regional headquarter for operations in the fast-growing economies of surrounding Southeast Asia and, more recently, the wider Asia region itself.
Singapore is the largest ship-bunkering port in the world, the largest foreign exchange trading centre in Asia and is second only to Hong Kong in terms of wealth management by assets.
The banning of the sale of chewing gum— except for medicinal purposes — was among the more benign examples of a rule that occasionally saw political opposition handled harshly, including the use of financially crippling lawsuits to silence critics.
Lee was often accused by rights groups of restricting civil liberties in Singapore’s multiracial society, over which he exerted a distinctive moral authority.
But he justified his decisions in the interest of preserving the prosperity and safety of the majority of Singaporeans. He remained a staunch believer in caning as a punishment, the issue receiving global attention in 1994 when US teenager Michael Fay was caned under vandalism legislation in spite of appeals from then US President Bill Clinton.
One of Lee’s last public policy statements came in 2012 when he addressed Singapore’s falling birth rate by ordering citizens to “have more babies” — making the top headline in The Straits Times, the main, government-leaning newspaper.
His last major public appearance came in November when, frail due to a neurological condition that hampered his mobility, he received a standing ovation at the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Action party.
Lee’s death comes as Singapore is grappling with something of an existential crisis as sharply slower economic growth, a rapidly ageing population and social strains brought about by recent years of foreign worker immigration are posing challenges to the current government, headed by Lee’s eldest son Lee Hsien Loong.
Last year, the economy — Asia’s 10th-largest — grew by only 2.9 per cent, a sharp drop from two decades of average growth of 6 per cent or more. It is forecast to grow by 2.8 per cent this year, down from an earlier estimate of 3.1 per cent, according to a poll of private economists by the Monetary Authority of Singapore this month.
The younger Mr Lee’s government has launched generous spending packages designed to bolster social safety nets amid widening social inequality.
The PAP is braced for a tough general election either this year or in 2016 amid increasing support for opposition parties, which recorded their best results at the last poll in 2011.
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