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Kevin Rawlinson and Kirsten Han in Singapore
Barack Obama leads tributes to country’s first prime minister, who is credited with building Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations
Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who led the city-state for more than three decades, has died aged 91.
Lee’s son and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, announced the news in the early hours of Monday morning local time, prompting a flurry of tributes from world leaders.
US president Barack Obama called Lee a “true giant of history” while UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called him a “legendary figure in Asia” and China’s president Xi Jinping praised Lee as an “old friend of the Chinese people”.
His son struggled to hold back tears when he made a televised address to the nation, saying Lee had built a nation and given Singaporeans a proud national identity.
Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English, the prime minister said: “We won’t see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew wasSingapore,” he said.
Lee said that his father would lie in state from 25-28 March at Parliament House so the public could pay their respects, with the state funeral on 29 March.
He has declared a period of national mourning from 23-29 March, with state flags on government buildings at half mast until Sunday.
The People’s Action party (PAP) – the party that Lee led to electoral victory in 1959 and which has governed Singapore ever since – set up a tribute websitetributetolky.org.
Lee, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, is widely credited with building Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis with a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.
He co-founded the PAP and led the newly born country when it was separated from Malaysia in 1965.
He stepped down as prime minister in 1990, handing power to Goh Chok Tong, but remained influential as senior minister in Goh’s cabinet and subsequently as “minister mentor” when Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister in 2004.
The older Lee left the cabinet in 2011 and had cut down his public appearances in recent months due to his age and declining health. Lee was admitted to Singapore general hospital on 5 February for severe pneumonia and was later put on life support.
Lee was feared for his authoritarian tactics but insisted that strict limits on speech and public protest were necessary to maintain stability in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
Maligah Thangavello, 55, and Dorai Josephine, 57, who are both healthcare assistants at Singapore general hospital, heard the news when they got on the bus on their way to work.
“We treat him like our father,” said Maligah in tears. “When I was 10, he came to my school and shook hands with all of us.”
“He is far away from us now,” said Dorai Josephine. “He was like a king, the king of Singapore. He did the best for Singapore.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Lee’s “tremendous” role in Singapore’s economic development was beyond doubt. “But it also came at a significant cost for human rights, and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy,” he said.
There were also dissenting voices in Singapore. “This man has put in certain structures which are certainly illiberal, anti-democratic, and his passing does not mean that they no longer survive,” said blogger Alex Au. “Effort is still needed to dismantle them.”
In a White House statement, Obama said that he appreciated Lee’s wisdom, including during discussions they held on his trip to Singapore in 2009 when he was formulating his Asia-Pacific policy.
“He 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,” Obama said.
Xi said Lee, who was ethnically Chinese, was “widely respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman” and expressed “sincere condolences” to his relatives.
Lee met China’s leaders multiple times and his model of political control allied to economic growth was seen as an example to China’s Communist party as it embarked on reforms.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, said: “Lady Thatcher once said that there was no prime minister she admired more than Mr Lee for ‘the strength of his convictions, the clarity of his views, the directness of his speech and his vision of the way ahead’. His place in history is assured, as a leader and as one of the modern world’s foremost statesmen.”
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, also paid tribute to Lee, calling him a political giant.
“The passing of a giant like Lee Kuan Yew is the end of an era,” Bishop told Sky News.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called Lee “a great Asian leader who laid the foundation for the prosperity of Singapore today”.
In a letter of condolence to Lee’s son, Singapore’s president Tony Tan said: “Mr Lee dedicated his entire life to Singapore from his first position as a legal advisor to the labour unions in the 1950s after his graduation from Cambridge University to his undisputed role as the architect of our modern Republic. Few have demonstrated such complete commitment to a cause greater than themselves.”
- This article was amended on Monday 23 March 2015 to correct a misspelling of Lee Kuan Yew’s name and to correct the time of the announcement of his death.