Lee Kuan Yew, whose efficient but often heavy-handed leadership helped transform Singapore from a chaotic British colonial backwater into one of the world’s most prosperous and orderly states, died March 23 in a Singapore hospital. He was 91.
Mr. Lee had been hospitalized with pneumonia since February. The prime minister’s office announced the death.
As prime minister from 1959 to 1990, Mr. Lee ushered Singapore through independence from Britain, a merger and subsequent breakup with neighboring Malaysia, and a period of explosive racial tensions before turning the Southeast Asian city-state into one of the region’s economic “tigers.” By the time he stepped down after 31 years at the helm, he was the longest-serving prime minister in the world.
His bluntness sometimes got him into trouble, notably when he lectured other countries publicly or when his private comments to U.S. officials became public. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by the anti-privacy group WikiLeaks, Mr. Lee in 2007 said dealing with Burma’s military junta was like “talking to dead people.” In 2009, in another leaked cable, he apparently called North Korean officials “psychopathic types, with a ‘flabby old chap’ for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation.”
Scarred by deadly race riots that rocked Singapore in the 1960s, Mr. Lee took far-reaching steps to tamp down racial and religious tensions among the teeming island state’s Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. He imposed integration, instituting strict rules to ensure that Singaporeans of different backgrounds lived, studied and worked together.
A British-educated lawyer by training, Mr. Lee ran a government that was widely regarded as farsighted, honest and efficient, but it also could be overbearing and patronizing. The result was a tidy, law-abiding country, but one that visitors often described as regimented, sterile and dull.
Critics also charged that Mr. Lee’s administration permitted detention without charge or trial, censored the press, harassed political opponents and turned a blind eye to police mistreatment of suspects.
Some Singaporeans complained that the avowedly “paternalistic” government treated them like children, forbidding private citizens to own home satellite dishes, fining and humiliating people caught failing to flush public toilets, and even imposing a nationwide ban on chewing gum.
When a BBC reporter once suggested to him that allowing people to chew gum could help spur creativity, Mr. Lee retorted: “If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.”
Mr. Lee steadfastly defended his tough approach to political opponents, arguing that it was imperative in a country such as Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese majority and sizable Malay and Indian minorities.