Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Founding Father, Dies At 91

Following weeks of struggling with a rapidly deteriorating case of pneumonia, Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew died at 91 on Monday morning local time. Lee had been hospitalized with pneumonia in early February and placed on a ventilator, but his condition worsened last week as a result of an infection.

The office of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee's son, said in a statement that he passed in the early hours of the morning at the Singapore General Hospital.

The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore.

Serving in the city-state's highest political office for 31 years — from 1959 when Singapore gained full self-government from the British to 1990 when he stepped down — Lee is credited with transforming the island from a British colony starved of resources to one of the continent's wealthiest and least corrupt nations. Singapore is now one of Asia's leading business and financial hubs.

In spite of Singapore's economic acclaim, Lee has faced criticism for his seeming intolerance for political and social dissent — he has launched (or threatened) costly legal suits against his critics and the foreign press that drove some to bankruptcy; there are harsh fines for ignoring its chewing gum ban, and punishment for graffiti includes imprisonment and public caning, a form of corporal retribution that has been criticized by human rights groups.


Lee is co-founder of the People's Action Party (PAP) that ruled Singapore since independence from the British, then after the tiny country split from Malaysia to become its own nation. Decades after parting ways with its larger, more resource-prosperous neighbor, Singapore has surpassed Malaysia — with which it shares the same diversity in race, culture and religion — in many sectors.

Its wealth, for one. And then there's its startling lack of corruption and crime in a region where they are so deeply embedded that it's almost become a way of life. And unlike its Malaysian counterpart, Singapore's government has fared better at resisting political race-baiting to win votes.

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Lee is not without his flaws — he has been accused of nepotism and a refusal to loosen his iron-grip on power, besides the country's many social problems and restrictions — but much of Singapore's progress today can be attributed to him. His vision for Singapore was perhaps encapsulated in an emotional press conference about the island's separation from Malaysia. Despite calling the event a "moment of anguish," Lee expressed optimism for the country's future that, to some degree, at least, seems to have been realized:

There is nothing to be worried about it. Many things will go on just as usual. But be firm, be calm. We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. ... Everybody will have his place: equal language, culture, religion.

In the meantime, the country will have to come to terms with losing a leader that many felt conflicted about, as well as a future without the colossal political figure looming in the background. Last month, as his conditioned deteriorated further and the possibility of his passing seemed inevitable, local commentator Carlton Tan wrote:

We simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man.
We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms. We are grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can maintain it without a strong civil society. ...
Perhaps no one else in Singapore’s history is capable of evoking such contradictory sentiments because no one else forced us to make such great trade-offs.

Image: Getty Images (3)