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Singaporeans mourn founding father Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew commanded immense respect in Singapore as he turned it into one of the world’s richest nations.ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans wept and world leaders paid tribute Monday as the Southeast Asian city-state mourned the death of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

The government announced that Lee, 91, ‘‘passed away peacefully’’ early Monday at Singapore General Hospital. An increasingly frail Lee was hospitalized in February with severe pneumonia.

State television broke away from regular programming with a hagiographic tribute to Lee’s life. In a live broadcast, one of its reporters called Lee’s death the ‘‘awful and dreaded’’ news.

Lee commands immense respect among Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. He led multiracial Singapore with an iron grip for more than three decades until 1990, and is credited with transforming the resource poor island into a wealthy bustling financial hub with low crime and almost zero corruption.


Lee Hsien Loong, his son and the current prime minister, struggled to hold back tears in a televised address to the nation.

Speaking in Malay, Mandarin, and English, the prime minister said Lee built a nation and gave Singaporeans a proud national identity.

‘‘We won’t see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore,’’ he said.

At the hospital where Lee spent the last weeks of his life, 55-year-old Maligah Thangaveloo cried as she clasped her hands in prayer before an expansive array of flowers and cards left by Singaporeans. Calling Lee ‘‘father,’’ she recalled shaking hands with him as a 9-year-old when he visited her school.

President Obama called Lee a visionary in a statement, saying he was ‘‘deeply saddened’’ to learn of his 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 Singapore’s success meant that Lee’s counsel was sought by political leaders around the world. Lee was also ‘‘hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,’’ Obama said.


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 Monday and Tuesday. After that, Lee will lie in state at Parliament until a state funeral Sunday.

Sayeed Hussain, an IT executive, said Lee was a ‘‘great hero’’ to Singaporeans as he paid respects at Singapore General Hospital.

‘‘It is our duty to respect him and recognize him as a great hero in the world,’’ said Hussain. ‘‘This is our last chance to do so.’’

Under Lee and his successors, Singapore was known around the world for its strict social order including a ban on chewing gum, restrictions on free speech, and canings for crimes some countries would rule as minor. In recent years, it has become socially more liberal and the fragmented political opposition made gains in Singapore’s last elections in 2011.

After stepping down as prime minister, Lee remained part of the Cabinet and an influential figure in Singapore and the region.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia said Lee was a ‘‘giant of our region.’’

Lee was both feared for his authoritarian tactics and admired for turning the city-state into one of the world’s richest nations.

The country’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Lee guided Singapore through a traumatic split with Malaysia in 1965 and helped transform what was then a sleepy port city into a global trade and finance center.


Although he could have remained in office for much longer, he stepped aside and handed over leadership of the ruling party, and the country, to a younger generation in 1990. Still, he remained an influential behind-the-scenes figure for many more years until his health deteriorated.

He also leaves another son, Lee Hsien Yang, and a daughter, neurologist Lee Wei Ling. His wife of more than 60 years, Kwa Geok Choo, died in October 2010.