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A legacy of controversy and accomplishment

SINGAPORE -- Some disagreed with Lee Kuan Yew's methods. Few could argue with his results. As prime minister of Singapore, he was largely responsible for developing a tropical backwater into one of the world's wealthiest economies. Even after stepping down in 1990, Lee continued to wield considerable influence in the city-state and Asia as a whole.

     After Lee's death on March 23, it is up to his eldest son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to continue building on his achievements.

     Lee Kuan Yew in 1959 became prime minister of what was then a self-governing state in the British Commonwealth. After Singapore, which lies at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, split from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, he became the independent nation's first prime minister. All together, he held the position for 31 years.

     When Singapore was forced out of the federation, Lee, then 41, wept openly at a news conference. The outlook was grim: Media dubbed Singapore the "city-state with no future," due to its small population and lack of natural resources. This humiliation only made Lee more determined to build a society and economy that would command global respect.

     In 1967, Lee helped to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At home, he was busy transforming his small country into an industrial and trading hub. He built infrastructure -- airports, docks, industrial parks -- ahead of regional neighbors. He also wooed foreign investors with tax benefits and other incentives.

     Before independence, local industry amounted to little more than a handful of small rubber and food-processing factories. By around 1970, multinational corporations had set up shop.

     Singapore became the first Southeast Asian nation to join the ranks of developed economies. In 2014, the island republic's per capita gross domestic product was around $56,000, far more than the larger economy of Japan.

     Some would argue, however, that prosperity is not everything. Lee governed Singapore through what amounted to one-party rule. He could be heavy-handed, restricting freedom of speech and invoking the Internal Security Act to counter any anti-government activity that might threaten stability.

     Overseas critics considered him authoritarian. He insisted that political stability was essential in a small nation.

Discipline over democracy

"Contrary to what American political commentators say," Lee once said, "I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy."

     Lee was not afraid of being unpopular. He did not hesitate to take a hard line when the public expressed discontent with the ruling People's Action Party. He famously banned the sale of chewing gum to keep the streets clean. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, he maintained capital punishment and caning. Yet he also showed little interest in amassing personal wealth and developed a reputation for thwarting corruption -- traits that set him apart from leaders of other emerging economies.

     While he enforced public order, neighboring countries often grappled with political uncertainty.

A woman looks at tributes to Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore General Hospital on March 23. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

     Lee cultivated a meritocracy and sought to develop the city-state's human resources. His mandate that English be taught as an official language is one example of his clarity of purpose. His top priority was building the economy through foreign investment, even if this meant limiting civil liberties. Some called Lee's Singapore a "developmental dictatorship," but to this day, other emerging countries seek to emulate the city-state's model.

     Though Lee maintained an iron grip on domestic politics, he was more flexible and pragmatic on the international front. In the early 1980s, as anti-Japanese sentiment from the war years simmered around Asia, Lee preferred to focus on what Singapore could learn from Japan, its companies and its economic growth model. He would brook no opposition to such ties.

     Lee shrewdly navigated tumultuous global transitions, such as the end of the Cold War and the rise of China. Above all, he sought balance. In his later years, he sometimes expressed concern that China's growing political and military power could threaten the equilibrium in Asia. He called on the U.S. to actively engage with Asian countries in order to maintain that equilibrium.

New era

After relinquishing the premiership, Lee became a senior minister. He later adopted the title of minister mentor. He remained a major behind-the-scenes presence after his son took the reins of government in 2004.

     But times had changed. The maturation of Singapore's economy was making it harder to grow through foreign investment alone. And opposition to the People's Action Party was swelling.

     In the 2011 general election, the ruling party mustered around 60% of the vote, the lowest since independence. A week after the election, Lee resigned from his post as minister mentor.

     Soon, his health deteriorated. Last June, Lee appeared to be a shadow of his former self. His legs had failed him. But his mind was as sharp as ever; the savvy world analyst remained.

     In his final years, Lee often reminded the public about the importance of entrepreneurship. Perhaps he himself recognized that globalization required Singapore to rework its political system and government-led industrial policy. In any case, he leaves behind a legacy of both controversy and accomplishment -- and big shoes for his successors to fill.

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