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Singapore's Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew Dies at 91

People pay their respects at the tribute area at Singapore General Hospital following the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore on March 23, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL)
People pay their respects at the tribute area at Singapore General Hospital following the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore on March 23, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL)
Singapore's Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew Dies at 91
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Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died early Monday. He was 91 years old.

Mr. Lee was Singapore’s leader from 1959 until 1990. In recent years, he remained a highly influential person in the city-state, off the coast of Malaysia.

The president of the United States offered his sympathy to the Lee family. President Barack Obama described Lee Kuan Yew as a "visionary" who built "one of the most prosperous countries in the world today."

Mr. Obama said the former leader was "a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one the great strategists of Asian affairs."

Chinese President Xi Jinping praised Mr. Lee as “an old friend of the Chinese people” who “was respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman.”

Fourth-generation Singaporean

“Harry” Lee Kuan Yew was a fourth generation Singaporean. His ancestors moved there from China’s Guangdong Province in the 1860s.

Mr. Lee was a survivor of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. After the war, he studied economics in London, and received a law degree from Cambridge University.

His political life began in 1954 with the formation of the People’s Action Party, also known as PAP. The group represented a coalition of middle class parties and trade unionists.

In 1955, Lee Kwan Yew was the opposition in the legislature. But disagreements within the PAP led to arrests of pro-communist members two years later.

The PAP won elections in 1959, with Mr. Lee becoming Singapore’s first Prime Minister. He held the position until 1990, when he became a senior minister.

Political scientist Carl Thayer is with the University of New South Wales in Australia. He says the appointment of Lee Kwan Yew was important to Singapore’s future.

“The story of modern day Singapore can’t be told without reference to Lee Kuan Yew. He took the country from colonial rule to independence. He fended off challenges from the socialist left and then he dominated politics.”

Political challenges

One of Mr. Lee’s early goals was to form a Federation of Malaysia, bringing together Singapore, Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. But he had differences with the leader of Peninsular Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Historians say Mr. Lee disagreed with Mr. Abdul Rahman’s support for local Malays over the area’s ethnic Chinese. The Chinese and Muslims clashed in 1964 and again in 1965. After the unrest, Mr. Abdul Rahman called for the separation of Malaysia from Singapore.

At the age of 42, Lee Kuan Yew became the leader of the city-state. He began working in support of Singapore’s most valuable resource – its people. Foreign investment followed. With economic growth of near 10 percent for many years, Singapore helped define economic development for “Asian Tigers” such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Modern city-state

Michael Barr is a political scientist at Flinders University in South Australia. He says that as Singapore industrialized, it rose as a modern city-state.

“One of Lee Kuan Yew’s great achievements, I think -- his positive legacies -- is how he recognized and built on Singapore’s natural advantages - and capitalized on them in a way that really is exceptional.”

FILE - Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on September 14, 2011.
FILE - Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on September 14, 2011.

Singapore became a center for transportation, oil refining and finance. It developed a world famous national airline. It also was the world’s busiest seaport until recently when Shanghai was recognized as the busiest.

Michael Barr says Mr. Lee also brought together administrators to shape Singapore’s future.

“He brought serious political leadership and political mass to what was a group of strong-minded and imaginative men and competent administrators. And without his political leadership would not have been able to establish the political hegemony that they have been able to.”

Some critics use the word “authoritarianism” to describe Lee Kuan Yew’s actions and position toward his opponents. The government used the Internal Security Act to detain opposing politicians, activists and trade unionists.

In 1963, the government arrested 100 people, including Said Zahari, a newspaper editor who was held for 17 years without trial.

In 1987, the government detained 22 Roman Catholic Church officials, social activists and professionals. The government accused them of a “left wing conspiracy.” When local and foreign media criticized the action, Lee Kuan Yew brought a case against the media in Singapore’s courts.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine," he said. "I’ve spent a whole life in building this and as long as I am in charge nobody’s going to knock it down.”

Singapore remains a country where the government exercises tight controls over free speech. In 2014, Reporters without Borders rated Singapore among the lowest countries in Southeast Asia for press freedoms, behind Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

I'm Mario Ritter.

This story was reported and written by Ron Corben. Hai Do adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

sympathy – n. a sharing of feelings or emotions with another person, usually feelings of sadness

generation – n. a group of individuals born and living about the same time

coalition – n. forces, groups, nations joined together

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