Singapore's founding father dies at 91

Mar 23, 2015, 7:53 AM EDT
Hospital staff mourn the passing of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew outside the Singapore General Hospital on March 23, 2015 in Singapore.
AFP/Getty Images

Lee Kuan Yew, the statesman who transformed Singapore from a small port city into a wealthy global hub, has died at the age of 91, reports the BBC.

The city-state's prime minister for 31 years, he was widely respected as the architect of Singapore's prosperity. But he was criticised for his iron grip on power. Under him freedom of speech was tightly restricted and political opponents were targeted by the courts.

A state funeral will be held on 29 March, after a week of mourning.

In an emotional televised address, his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to him. "He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won't see another man like him."

Lee oversaw Singapore's independence from Britain and separation from Malaysia. His death was announced early on Monday.

He had been in hospital for several weeks with pneumonia and was on life support. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply saddened" by Mr Lee's death. U.S. President Barack Obama described him as a "giant of history".

The Chinese foreign ministry called him "a uniquely influential statesman in Asia". In Singapore, a steady stream of people arrived at the hospital and the Istana, the prime minister's office, to offer their condolences.

A charismatic figure, Lee co-founded the People's Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959, and was its first prime minister. The Cambridge-educated lawyer led Singapore through merger with, and then separation from, Malaysia. Speaking after the split in 1965, he pledged to build a meritocratic, multi-racial nation. But tiny Singapore - with no natural resources - needed a new economic model.

"We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die," Lee told the New York Times in 2007. "We had to produce something which is different and better than what they have."

Lee's leadership was seen as a model for many developing countries across the world, and politicians of all stripes said they took inspiration from his policies, writes Reuters.

"Minister Mentor Lee's views and insights on Asian dynamics and economic management were respected by many around the world, and no small number of this and past generations of world leaders have sought his advice on governance and development," Obama said in a statement.

"My tears welled up as I received the sad news," said another former Singapore prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee. "He was my leader, mentor, inspiration, the man I looked up to most," Goh posted on Facebook. Dozens of world leaders are expected to travel to the city-state for Lee's funeral, which will be held at the National University of Singapore.

"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. "He was always a friend to Britain, if sometimes a critical one, and many British Prime Ministers benefited from his wise advice, including me."