Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 September 2019

Lee Kuan Yew: founder of a proud nation

Obituary: Founding father, revolutionary leader and elder statesman - these were words frequently used to describe Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, who died on Monday. He was 91.
A man bows to pay his respects to the late Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, at a community club where members of the public can gather to express their condolences on March 23, 2015 as the seven-day national mourning period began. Wong Maye-E/AP Photo
A man bows to pay his respects to the late Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, at a community club where members of the public can gather to express their condolences on March 23, 2015 as the seven-day national mourning period began. Wong Maye-E/AP Photo
Founding father, revolutionary leader and elder statesman - these were words frequently used to describe Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, who died on Monday. He was 91.

Lee was admitted to hospital for severe pneumonia on February 5. He "passed away peacefully" at 3.18am on Monday, according to the prime minister's office.

His son, and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong declared a seven-day mourning period.

In an emotional address to the nation, speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English as his father always did, Mr Lee paid tribute to Singapore's longest-serving prime minister.

"He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won't see another like him," he said.

Tributes poured in from around the world. The US president Barack Obama hailed Lee as a "visionary" and "a remarkable leader", while British prime minister David Cameron said, "His place in history is assured."

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, UAE President sent his condolences. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also sent cables of condolences to Singapore.

Both Sheikh Zayed and Lee Kuan Yew were fathers of their nations

Lee was prime minister for 31 years, from 1959, when Singapore gained self rule from Britain, to 1990.

Born on September 16, 1923, as a British subject in Singapore, he lived through British colonial rule, the Japanese occupation, the 1963 union with Malaysia and its expulsion after two stormy years.

Etched in the minds of generations of Singaporeans to come will be the poignant scene on August 9, 1965 - told and retold by parents and grandparents - when Lee announced Singapore's independence.

It was not a celebratory moment.

Lee was uncharacteristically lost for words, and in between pregnant pauses and sobs, he announced on national TV that his dreams of a merger with Malaysia had been shattered. Until then, he had felt it was the only way for Singapore to survive.

The tiny island state's future was at stake - with no natural resources and rising unemployment, the lives of two million people weighed heavily on his shoulders. But Lee vowed that day, "Singapore will survive."

From that point on, there was no turning back.

Under his leadership Singapore grew from an impoverished third-world nation once called a "poor little market in a dark corner of Asia", into a financial powerhouse and one of the region's tiger economies.

Today, the nation of 5.5 million people boasts a GDP per capita of US$55,182 (Dh202,700) and is one of the world's richest countries. More than one in six households have $1 million in cash savings, according to Boston Consulting Group.

By the time he stepped down in 1990, Lee was one of Asia's most influential political figures and the world's longest-serving prime minister.

Leaders in Asia - from Beijing to Hanoi to Manila - and the West, sought his advice on economic, political and social issues.

Former US president Richard Nixon once said that if Lee had lived in another time and place, he might have "attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone".

Lee continued to be in the cabinet after giving up the premiership - first as senior minister until 2004, then as minister mentor.

He resigned in 2011, days after the long-ruling People's Action Party which he co-founded suffered its worst electoral performance since independence.

Lee was a man of controversy, with critics accusing him of ruling Singapore with an iron-fist. But he was unapologetic.

"I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes," he admitted. "If I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters."

Outpouring of public grief in Singapore

At the University of Cambridge where he read law, Lee chalked up an impressive academic record, scoring a rare double first class honours.

He married his wife Kwa Geok Choo when they were both studying at Cambridge. She went on to become one of Singapore's top lawyers after they returned in 1950, while he eventually pursued his life-long vocation in politics.

The couple have three children: Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang. Kwa's death in 2010 dealt a huge blow to Lee.

While some saw him as a ruthless, dogmatic leader, his family saw a loving father and a devoted husband.

His daughter described a conversation between her parents in October 2008 when Lee knew his wife would never walk again after suffering a stroke.

He told her: "We have been together for most of our lives. You cannot leave me alone now. I will make your life worth living in spite of your physical handicap."

She replied: "That is a big promise."

"Papa said: 'Have I ever let you down?'" recalled Ms Lee.

At Kwa's funeral two years later, the world caught another glimpse of Lee - this time, caressing the face of his wife of 63 years as she lay in the casket, before putting his fingers to his lips.

Whether loved or hated, there is no doubt Lee devoted his life to Singapore.

He once said, "I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country ... At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

Lee's death comes as his country gears up for its biggest celebration yet - the golden jubilee of its independence.

But at this year's National Day parade on August 9, for the first time since independence, Singaporeans will not see Lee Kuan Yew waving from the VIP stands.

jtan@thenational.ae

Updated: March 23, 2015 04:00 AM

SHARE

SHARE