Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Father and First Premier of Singapore

By Seth Mydans

  • March 22, 2015
  • Lee Kuan Yew in 1969, a decade into his tenure as prime minister of Singapore. In his decades as leader, he transformed the tiny island outpost into one of the wealthiest and least corrupt countries in Asia.Credit…Michael Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive, via Getty Image
  1. Lee Kuan Yew in 1969, a decade into his tenure as prime minister of Singapore. In his decades as leader, he transformed the tiny island outpost into one of the wealthiest and least corrupt countries in Asia.Credit…Michael Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive, via Getty Image
  2. Mr. Lee was hoisted by supporters in Singapore after leading his leftist, but anti-Communist, People’s Action Party to a landslide victory in September 1963, after Singapore made its brief entry into the Federation of Malaysia.Credit…Associated Press
  3. Mr. Lee during a mass spring-cleaning drive for National Loyalty Week in 1959, the year Singapore gained full self-government from the British.Credit…Singapore Press, via Associated Press
  4. Queen Elizabeth II of England was greeted by Mr. Lee as she arrived in Singapore on Feb. 18, 1972.Credit…Nash/Associated Press
  5. Mr. Lee visiting a housing project. He was a leading proponent of “Asian values,” in which the good of society took precedence over individual rights and citizens exchanged some autonomy for the paternalistic rule. Credit…Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images
  6. Slide 6 of 96/9Mr. Lee attended the Singapore National Economic Development Fair in 1960. With his “ideology-free” approach, the city-state became an international business and financial center. Credit…Singapore Press, via Associated Press
  7. Slide 7 of 97/9Mr. Lee thanked voters who elected him as a member of Parliament for the constituency of Tanjong Pagar in September 1988.Credit…Soon Tan Ah/Associated Press
  8. Slide 8 of 98/9Mr. Lee celebrated his 77th birthday at a ceremony with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, on Sept. 16, 2000. Credit…Edward Wray/Associated Press
  9. Slide 9 of 99/9Mr. Lee in his later years. During a 2010 interview with The New York Times, he struck a reflective tone. “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose,” he said. Credit…Singapore Press, via Associated Press

SINGAPORE — Lee Kuan Yew, who transformed the tiny outpost of Singapore into one of Asia’s wealthiest and least corrupt countries as its founding father and first prime minister, died here on Monday. He was 91.

His death, at the Singapore General Hospital, was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Lee’s eldest son.

Mr. Lee was prime minister from 1959, when Singapore gained full self-government from the British, until 1990 when he stepped down. Late into his life, he remained the dominant personality and driving force in what he called a First World oasis in a Third World region.

The nation reflected the man: efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking and pragmatic.

“We are ideology-free,” Mr. Lee said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007, stating what had become, in effect, Singapore’s ideology. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”

His leadership was criticized for suppressing freedom, but the formula succeeded. Singapore became an admired international business and financial center.

An election in 2011 marked the end of the Lee Kuan Yew era, with a voter revolt against the ruling People’s Action Party. Mr. Lee resigned from the specially created post of minister mentor and stepped into the background as the nation began exploring the possibilities of a more engaged and less autocratic government.

Since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 — an event Mr. Lee called his “moment of anguish” — he had seen himself in a never-ending struggle to overcome the nation’s lack of natural resources, a potentially hostile international environment and a volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians.

“To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” he said in the 2007 interview. “To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.”

His “Singapore model” included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism. But it was also criticized as a soft form of authoritarianism, suppressing political opposition, imposing strict limits on free speech and public assembly, and creating a climate of caution and self-censorship. The model has been studied by leaders elsewhere in Asia, including China, and the subject of many academic case studies.

The commentator Cherian George described Mr. Lee’s leadership as “a unique combination of charisma and fear.”

As Mr. Lee’s influence waned, the questions were how much and how fast his model might change in the hands of a new, possibly more liberal generation. Some even asked, as he often had, whether Singapore, a nation of 5.6 million, could survive in a turbulent future.

Mr. Lee was a master of so-called “Asian values,” in which the good of society takes precedence over the rights of the individual and citizens cede some autonomy in return for the paternalistic rule.

Generally passive in political affairs, Singaporeans sometimes chide themselves as being overly preoccupied with a comfortable lifestyle, which they sum up as the “Five C’s” — cash, condo, car, credit card, country club.

In recent years, though, a confrontational world of political websites and blogs has given new voices to critics of Mr. Lee and his system.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addresses a crowd in Singapore in 1964. He was the nation’s dominant personality for many years.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addresses a crowd in Singapore in 1964. He was the nation’s dominant personality for many years.Credit…Associated Press

Even among people who knew little of Singapore, Mr. Lee was famous for his national self-improvement campaigns, which urged people to do such things as smile, speak good English and flush the toilet, but never to spit, chew gum or throw garbage off balconies.

“They laughed, at us,” he said in the second volume of his memoirs, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000.” “But I was confident that we would have the last laugh. We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts.”

Mr. Lee developed a distinctive Singaporean mechanism of political control, filing libel suits that sometimes drove his opponents into bankruptcy and doing battle with critics in the foreign press. Several foreign publications, including The International Herald Tribune, which is now called The International New York Times, have apologized and paid fines to settle libel suits.

The lawsuits challenged accusations of nepotism — members of Mr. Lee’s family hold influential positions in Singapore — and questions about the independence of the judiciary, which its critics say follow the lead of the executive branch.

Mr. Lee denied that the suits had a political purpose, saying they were essential to clearing his name of false accusations.

He seemed to believe that criticism would gain currency if it were not challenged vigorously. But the lawsuits themselves did as much as anything to diminish his reputation.

Mr. Lee was proud to describe himself as a political street fighter more feared than loved.

“Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac,” he said in 1994. “If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.”

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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