SINGAPORE CITY –– Singapore has begun seven days of national mourning following the death of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee, who was 91, led Singapore’s transformation from a small port city to one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
World leaders have paid tribute to Lee, who served as the city-state’s prime minister for 31 years.
President Barack Obama described him as a “giant of history” whose advice had been sought by other world leaders.
China’s President Xi Jinping said Lee was a widely respected strategist and statesman, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin described him as one of the “patriarchs” of world politics.
The period of national mourning will culminate in a state funeral next Sunday, and Lee’s body is to lie in state at Parliament from Wednesday to Saturday.
A private family wake took place today and will continue tomorrow.
News of Lee’s death came in a government statement that said he had “passed away peacefully” in the early hours of this morning at Singapore General Hospital. Lee had been in hospital for several weeks with pneumonia and was on life support.
State television broke away from its normal schedules and broadcast rolling tributes.
As evening fell, many Singaporeans were continuing to arrive at the Istana, the compound housing the president’s official residence and the Prime Minister’s Office, where a book of condolence has been placed.
Earlier, some chanted “Mr Lee, Mr Lee” as a hearse carrying the former leader’s body arrived at the compound.
An area has also been set aside outside the hospital for flowers and other tributes.
“I’m so sad. He is my idol. He’s been so good to me, my family and everyone,” said resident Lua Su Yean, 64.
“His biggest achievement is that from zero he’s built up today’s Singapore.”
Books of condolence have also been opened at all of Singapore’s overseas missions.
In an emotional televised address, Lee’s son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to him.
“He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him,” he said.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told the BBC’s Newsday programme that Lee was “George Washington and Churchill combined for Singaporeans”.
“There is deep sense of loss, a deep sense of grief,” he said.
Business in bustling Singapore carried on as normal. At the stock exchange, the normal stream of market prices displayed on a bank of screens instead read: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, September 16, 1923 to March 23, 2015.
Lee Kuan Yew –– widely known as LKY –– oversaw Singapore’s independence from Britain and separation from Malaysia and co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959.
Lee set about creating a highly educated work force fluent in English, and reached out to foreign investors to turn Singapore into a manufacturing hub.
He embarked on a programme of slum clearance, industrialization and tackling corruption. He was a fierce advocate of a multiracial Singapore.
However, Lee also introduced tight controls, and one of his legacies was a clampdown on the Press –– tight restrictions that remain in place today.
Dissent –– and political opponents –– were ruthlessly quashed. Today, PAP remains firmly in control. There
are currently six opposition lawmakers in Parliament.
Other measures, such as corporal punishment, a ban on chewing gum and the government’s foray into matchmaking for Singapore’s brightest –– to create smarter babies –– led to perceptions of excessive state interference.
Lee criticized what he saw as the overly liberal approach of the United States and the West, saying it had “come at the expense of orderly society”.