Munshi Ahmed / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, dies at 91

Lee’s use of authoritarian ‘Asian values’ in government widely credited for Singapore’s success, eyed by other leaders

Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who designed the nation of Singapore from scratch and touted its astonishing economic success as vindication of his governing philosophy of authoritarian “Asian values,” has died. He was 91.

Lee, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia since February, is survived by his sons Lee Hsien Loong — Singapore’s current prime minister — and Lee Hsien Yang, a business executive, as well as his daughter, Lee Wei Ling, a physician. Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, died in 2010.

"The prime minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore," read a statement on the Singapore government's website. "Mr. Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3:18 a.m."

The current prime minister struggled to hold back tears in a televised address to the nation. Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English, he said his father built a nation and gave Singaporeans a proud national identity. 

The Singapore government has declared seven days of national mourning, and flags will fly at half-staff on state buildings. A private wake for the Lee family will take place on Monday and Tuesday. After that, Lee will lie in state at Parliament until a state funeral Sunday.

During his decades as prime minister and later under various official titles of honor, the dour, articulate and relentlessly pragmatic Lee became an internationally influential figure despite his Southeast Asian city-state’s minuscule size. World leaders and top CEOs routinely sought his advice on Asian geopolitics, and other governments cited his success in maintaining order through tight political control as a justification for toughening rules in their own countries.

Tributes to him began pouring in soon after his death.

"His place in history is assured, as a leader and as one of the modern world's foremost statesmen," Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement.

"Lee Kwan Yew's passing is as much a loss for the international community as it is for Singapore," China's President Xi Jinping said.

President Barack Obama issued a statement calling Lee a "visionary" and saying he was "deeply saddened" to learn of Lee's death. Obama, who met Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009, said his "remarkable" leadership helped build "one of the most prosperous countries in the world today."

He said Lee was also "hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific." 

Admirers say Singapore’s glittering skyscrapers and safe, immaculate streets affirm Lee’s view that Western-style liberal democracy is not the only viable path to development. Critics counter that the island’s political censorship, social micromanagement and sometimes draconian justice system have created a docile, claustrophobic society — and they argue that the values Lee promoted as “Asian” were really more his own.

There's no disagreement, though, that ensuring Singapore's prosperity and security was the obsessive pursuit of Lee’s entire life.

“Even if you are going to lower me into my grave and I feel that something is wrong,” he once said, “I’ll get up.”

Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister when his People’s Action Party (PAP) was voted into power after Britain granted the former colony self-government in 1959. The failure of a short-lived effort to unite his mostly ethnic-Chinese seaport city with its much-larger, Malay-majority neighbor Malaysia prompted the tough-talking Lee to burst into tears on national television 1965, apparently overcome by the enormousness of the challenge facing a suddenly independent country half the size of Oahu and with no natural resources.

But the tears dried quickly as Lee began a relentless campaign to transform the impoverished, malaria-ridden tropical island into one of the world’s wealthiest and most modern societies.

He persuaded multinational corporations to set up regional headquarters in Singapore by promising a tranquil and orderly environment, tax breaks and clear rule of law in a region often riddled with conflict and corruption. Labor unions were consolidated under a government-linked umbrella group, making for a compliant workforce. Entrenching the PAP in power made the business environment predictable for foreign firms and governments.

Lee insisted that this stability trumped concerns about transparency and individual liberty, which he often dismissed as Western vanities. Many of his early political opponents were jailed under internal security laws. The country's newspapers and broadcasters were brought under indirect government control and became universally friendly to Lee’s party. Juries were abolished. Government leaders often sued opposition politicians for defamation, resulting in bankruptcies that barred them from holding office. A similar situation limited criticism by foreign news organizations. 

So while the PAP continued to easily win elections, its opponents complained that the legal and media environment had tilted the playing field heavily in its favor.

Its political dominance also enabled Lee’s government to impose intricate social controls, including Singapore’s famous longtime ban on the import and sale of chewing gum, which Lee loathed for its messiness. Marijuana traffickers face a mandatory death sentence by hanging, and graffiti taggers are strapped to a wooden frame and lashed across the bare buttocks with a rattan cane. Failure to flush a public toilet is punishable by a fine. Bans have been slapped on films, TV shows, magazines and even popular songs over references to drug use or gay sex. Public discussion of race or religion is highly regulated, which officials insist is necessary to preserve harmony among the country’s ethnic Chinese majority — most of them Buddhists, Taoists or Christians — and substantial minorities of Muslim Malays and predominantly Hindu Indians.

Despite the criticism and even ridicule prompted by these rules, Lee never doubted the wisdom of his strong-arm approach.

“If I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely, without having to ask those who are being governed whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their interest,” he once said.

“We would not have made economic progress,” he said on another occasion, “if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Nor did Lee make excuses for a Machiavellian willingness to make questionable alliances. He worked for Japanese intelligence when Japan occupied Singapore during World War II. He became a Cambridge-educated lawyer and thrived under British rule. Later he worked to drive the British out, making common cause with the then-powerful communists, only to turn on them after independence and imprison many under security laws bequeathed by the British. Despite denouncing Western dominance and forging lucrative ties with Beijing, Lee also quietly allowed a substantial U.S. military presence in Singapore to counter any regional threat.  

Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one ... You take me on, I take my hatchet, and we meet in the cul-de-sac.

Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore is now a flourishing commercial center, a financial hub with high-tech industries, comparatively high income levels, first-class education and luxurious fashion boutiques. But critics say Lee’s domineering style of leadership has sapped creativity and drive among the country’s 5.5 million people.

The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans — who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence this August — express an enduring respect and affection for Lee. But there's an ambivalence about his legacy. Despite a gradual loosening of some social and media controls, many Singaporeans still worry that publicly asking the wrong question or privately making the wrong comment could get them sued by the government or fired by their employers or draw the attention of the secretive and feared Internal Security Department, which can detain suspected subversives without trial.

In the West, Lee will be lionized as a brilliant elder statesman who set up a haven of tidy modernity in Southeast Asia, holding the line against communism during the Vietnam War era and later using his nuanced understanding of both Eastern and Western powers to help maintain a stable balance of power in the region.

In Asia, his legacy will be the prosperity and respect he achieved at home and abroad through authoritarian governance, although those ideas may be challenged by the success of formerly authoritarian Asian countries such as South Korea that have maintained their economic success while democratizing their societies.

“Mr. Lee's enduring legacy is his views on ‘Asian values,’ but … such a view has been refuted with many countries from South Korea to Indonesia and even Myanmar now moving towards democracy,” said Chee Soon Juan, who leads one of Singapore’s perpetually struggling opposition parties. Chee has been bankrupted by repeated defamation suits by PAP leaders and was occasionally jailed for refusing to pay penalties for speaking in public without permission.

“China will undergo political reform as well, and this, rather than Mr. Lee's prognostications, will determine future geopolitics in the region and beyond,” Chee said.

Lee’s harshest critics and strongest admirers mostly acknowledge that he was motivated by an all-consuming drive to create security and material comfort for his people and to do what what he believed was best for them — even if some found his methods and the depths of his convictions unsettling.

In memoirs published in the late 1990s, Lee said he learned formative lessons about power during Singapore’s three and a half years of Japanese occupation during World War II, when he saw fellow Singaporeans brutally beaten for the slightest disrespect. Tens of thousands of people were imprisoned or massacred.

“The Japanese government demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all,” he wrote in his memoirs. “My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience.”

“Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one,” he wrote. “You take me on, I take my hatchet, and we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

Lee seemed to relish his legal battles with critics, bragging about “demolishing” them and walking into courtrooms with the gait of a street fighter, head up and flinty eyes perpetually scanning the room.

“Now the devil is coming,” Lee once thundered in court in the midst of a defamation suit against a maverick politician. “Now the time’s up. Now the devil will come and take what was agreed.”

With wire services

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