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Lee Kuan Yew dead; authoritarian founder of modern Singapore was 91

In this file photo Singapore's then former Prime

In this file photo Singapore's then former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, left, is greeted by Italian Premier Romano Prodi, right, at the Chigi Premier's palace in Rome. Lee died Monday, March 23, 2015, at age 91. Credit: AP / Plinio Lepri, File

SINGAPORE -- Lee Kuan Yew, who founded modern Singapore and was both feared for his authoritarian tactics and admired for turning the city-state into one of the world's richest nations, died early today, the government said. He was 91.

Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital on Feb. 5 for severe pneumonia and was later put on life support.

The prime minister's office said in a statement on its website that Lee "passed away peacefully" at the hospital at 3:18 a.m. today (3:18 p.m. in New York yesterday).

The country's first and longest-serving prime minister, Lee guided Singapore through a traumatic split with Malaysia in 1965 and helped transform what was then a sleepy port city into a global trade and finance center. Although he could have remained in office for much longer, he stepped aside and handed over leadership of the ruling party, and the country, to a younger generation in 1990. Still, he remained an influential behind-the-scenes figure for many more years until his health deteriorated.

"In the end, my greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fact that I have spent years gathering support, mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races -- and that it will endure beyond me, as it has," Lee said in his 2013 book, "One Man's View of the World." President Barack Obama called Lee a "visionary" and "true giant of history." "Lee's views and insights on Asian dynamics and economic management were respected by many around the world," Obama said in a statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he was "deeply saddened" by Lee's death. He noted that Singapore is marking its 50th anniversary of independence this year, and "its founding father will be remembered as one of the most inspiring Asian leaders."

Lee's legacy includes an efficient government with little corruption, low tax rates to attract foreign investment, excellent schools and clean and safe streets, all of which have helped Singapore rank consistently near the top of surveys of the most livable cities for expatriates.

He faced criticism, though, for using tough tactics to consolidate power. He jailed some political rivals without trial for decades and brought defamation lawsuits against journalists and opposition politicians, which had a chilling effect on dissent.

Lee insisted that strict limits on free speech and public protest were necessary to maintain stability in a multiethnic and multireligious country that witnessed race riots in the 1960s. That stability, he added, was needed to enable growth and raise living standards in a country with few natural resources.

"I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial," Lee said in an interview with The New York Times published in September 2010. "I'm not saying everything I did was right. But everything I did was for an honorable purpose."

He also outlawed the sale of chewing gum, and promoted English and Mandarin while banning other Chinese dialects from public schools, radio and TV.

Lee, whose People's Action Party has ruled Singapore since 1959, remained a powerful adviser with cabinet minister status after stepping down as prime minister, and many Singaporeans, particularly older ones, viewed him as a wise, if strict, father figure.

Lee gave up his cabinet minister post and resigned from the executive committee of the People's Action Party after 2011 parliamentary elections in which the ruling party won its lowest overall vote percentage since independence.

One of his sons, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore's current prime minister. He also is survived by another son, Lee Hsien Yang, and a daughter, neurologist Dr. Lee Wei Ling. His wife of more than 60 years, Kwa Geok Choo, died in October 2010.

Born Sept. 23, 1923, Lee grew up speaking English in a Singapore that was part of the British colonial empire.

His university education was interrupted by the three-year Japanese occupation of the island in World War II, a time Lee said he learned how power could be wielded.

"The Japanese demanded total obedience, and got it from nearly all," he wrote in his memoirs.

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