- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore who combined a personal charisma and strong will to transform his sleepy city-state into an unlikely trading powerhouse and a model for other emerging economies around the globe, died Monday at the age of 91. He had been suffering from a severe case of pneumonia, officials said.

Mr. Lee was Singapore’s longest serving prime minister, serving more than three decades before stepping down in 1990. Under his leadership, Singapore went from a British colonial backwater to become one of the most prosperous and efficiently run nations in East Asia, with a per-capita income second only to Japan.

He was not without critics, who said Singapore’s economic success was built on an authoritarian base, but his popularity with most in the city never wavered.

“I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls,” he said once. “I think a leader who is [obsessed] is a weak leader.”

Thousands of people had been leaving flowers and cards at the hospital over the past three days, as news of his worsening condition spread last week.

“Thank you for giving us, Singaporeans, a great nation to live in, a country that I can be proud of, a country where I can go out a midnight and not be afraid,” Singaporean Nurhidayah Osman wrote on the prime minister’s Facebook page, according to the Reuters news agency.

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Praised in his final years as one of the world’s great elder statesmen by world leaders, Mr. Lee’s death brought a new round of appreciations.

“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,” President Obama said in a statement released by the White House Sunday evening.

Lee Kuan Yew is unlike any politician I have met,” recalled foreign policy analysts Fareed Zakaria after interviewing the ex-Singapore leader in 1994, “There were no smiles, no jokes, no bonhomie. He looked straight at me, he has an inexpressive face but an intense gaze, shook hands and motioned toward one of the room’s pale blue leather sofas. … There would be no small talk.”

Mr. Lee was born on September 16, 1923. He was born into a wealthy, prominent family and was a fourth-generation Singaporean. He studied law at Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge and was admitted to the English bar. Instead, he chose to return to Singapore to practice law.

Singapore hosted Britain’s main naval base in the Far East and was ruled by an appointed legislative counsel and a governor. When Mr. Lee returned to Singapore, he banded with the Labor Front, a group of like-minded Singaporeans who were interested in constitutional reform and independence from Great Britain.

In 1954, Mr. Lee left the Labor Front to create a more radical party called the People’s Action Party.

“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind,” he said in his book, “The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew.”

He helped guide Singapore to independence, although it wasn’t until 1958 that Singapore became a self-governing state except in matters of defense and foreign affairs.

During his first year as prime minister, he introduced in 1959 a five-year plan calling for urban renewal and industrial reform, setting the stage for Singapore to become one of the first of the emerging Asian tiger economies. He had his setbacks — including a failed merger and traumatic divorce from neighboring Malaysia in 1965 — but the country continued to prosper on its own.

Mr. Lee launched programs that would turn Singapore into a major exporter of finished goods. He was famous for seeking to control even mundane details of residents’ lives in order to ensure a well-run, orderly state.

Mr. Lee resigned as prime minister in November 1990 but kept a post in the Cabinet until 2011, and remained a member of Singapore’s parliament until his death.”Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up,” he said when he stepped down as prime minister in 1991.

Mr. Lee met his wife Kwa Geok Choo in 1944 at a party. The couple were married on September 30, 1950 and remained together until her death in 2010. They have two sons: Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang, and one daughter: Lee Wei Ling.

The family’s influence is likely to be felt long after its founding father’s passing: His son, Lee Hsien Loong is Singapore’s third and current prime minister.

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