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Asia

Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore's founding father

Lee Kuan Yew, a prominent figure on Singapore's political scene since 1959, governed the city-state for more than three decades and shaped the country's political landscape. Lee died Monday in hospital at the age of 91.

Lee Kuan Yew, the man behind the political memoir "The Singapore Story," transformed the port city into one of the wealthiest nations in the world. After taking office as the country's first prime minister in 1959, Lee introduced reforms that boosted the economy and set it on the path to success.

By 1990, when Lee stepped down, the city-state's GDP per capita had risen to more than $12,000, from a paltry $512 in 1965. The figure now stands at more than $55,000 (50,600 euros), according to data from the World Bank.

'From the third world to the first world'

Under Lee's leadership, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. But the arrangement lasted less than two years due to strong ideological differences between the political outfits in Malaysia and Lee's People's Action Party. When deadly race riots broke out between ethnic Chinese and Malays in 1965, Singapore was forced to leave the union by the Malaysian Parliament.

In his autobiography titled "From Third World to First: The Singapore Story," published in 1999, Lee described how he faced the challenge of developing an island nation with a high illiteracy rate and no natural resources.

From the beginning, Lee focused on improving education standards and expanding modern health care. At the same time, efforts to provide clean water to households and eradicate diseases like malaria were intensified.

In addition, Lee introduced measures to jumpstart manufacturing of finished products for export, and created a better business climate in the country to draw foreign investment. His government also built affordable housing for working-class families.

Singapur City

Lee transformed the port city of Singapore into one of the wealthiest nations in the world

Authoritarian government, economic liberalism

Georg Blume, a journalist working for German newspaper Die Zeit, interviewed Lee in 2011. Blume describes Lee Kuan Yew as a "… dictator of Singapore, who - whether in office or not - ruled the country since 1965 with minimal room for opposition."

In the authoritarian city-state, even chewing gum is outlawed except for medical reasons and spraying graffiti can lead to corporal punishment and jail time. Drug trafficking is punishable with the death penalty.

Singapore's media is still far from the Western model of free press. Reporting on ethnic or sectarian conflicts between the city-state's many ethnic communities, such as the Chinese, Malays and Indians, is a taboo subject for journalists.

During his time as premier, Lee limited freedom of speech whenever it seemed to threaten Singapore's stability. "Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government," Lee said in 1971 at a press conference in Helsinki.

Similarities with the motherland

In 1978, Lee said to China's then leader Deng Xiaoping that "there was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better" - a comment that might have contributed to Deng initiating economic reforms in China.

Although China is now home to turbo-capitalism, its communist elite still rules the country with an iron fist. In comparison, Singapore resembles a beacon of freedom. However, the city-state appears to have enlightened absolutism rather than a Western-style democracy.

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