03/23/2015, 00.00
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Singapore mourns Lee Kuan Yew, 91, the towering boss of the Asian tiger

The government, under Lee's son Lee Hsien Loong, declared seven days of national mourning. A state funeral is scheduled for 29 March. The elderly statesman had been in hospital for weeks battling pneumonia. He led the small country with an iron fist for 30 years, creating a stable corruption-free economy. For critics, the price of his success was the denial of rights and freedoms.

Singapore (AsiaNews) - Singaporeans are mourning the death of Lee Kuan Yew, their long-time leader and Father of the nation, an iconic figure who was as respected when in power as he was feared.

State television broke away from its regular programming with a rolling hagiographic tribute to Lee's life and achievements in a country that he led with an iron fist.

The government, currently led by Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, announced that the 91-year-old former prime minister "passed away peacefully" several hours before dawn at Singapore General Hospital.

The increasingly frail elder statesman was hospitalised in early February with severe pneumonia and was on life support.

A state funeral will be held on 29 March, after a week of mourning.

World leaders paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, who promoted "Asian values" that gave Singapore its independence and spurred its development, based on authoritarian rule, repression, harsh punishments, and a de facto dictatorship.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among those who expressed their condolences for Lee's death.

Lee co-founded the People's Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959 and, for 30 years, he held the post of prime minister.

The Cambridge-educated lawyer led Singapore through merger with, and then separation from, Malaysia. After the split in 1965, whose 50th anniversary falls this year, he oversaw the development of a meritocratic, multi-racial nation. He also led a battle royal against corruption.

Despite the lack of natural resources, the city-state has become an economic and financial model as well a leader in urban environment protection, including a plan to achieve water independence by 2061.

Many foreign analysts and observers praised him for his role in creating an oasis of stability in a region saddled with corruption, political violence and poverty.

After stepping down as prime minister in 1990, Lee remained in the cabinet and became an influential elder statesman figure in Singapore and Asia.

Speaking to his fellow citizens in English, Malay and Mandarin, his son Lee Hsien Loong said, "We won't see another man like him." For many Singaporeans, he was the very essence of Singapore.

Popular among the Chinese, he supported a Western economic model based on a Confucian work ethic, imposing tight controls on people's lives, while providing wealth, services and a stable economy to the nation.

He also promoted controversial family planning policies, legalising abortion and supporting sterilisation to contain the rapid population growth in the 50s and 60s.

His son eventually backed away from them, and in recent years launched campaigns aimed at young people, asking them to marry and have children.

On this occasion, the old leader gave his support to new political and social directives, stressing that marriage and children are important.

Smaller than New York and without natural resources, the city-state's GDP's in 2014 was US$ 297.94 billion, up by 2.40 per cent.

However, the wealth is not distributed equally and the economic boom has increased disparity between citizens.

Its Gini coefficient - a measure of statistical dispersion that represents the income distribution and inequality - now stands at 0.48 (it was 0.444 in 2000). A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality; a Gini coefficient of one expresses maximal inequality. 

In addition, despite its status as the "best" country for doing business and its rapidly expanding economy, several issues remain unresolved in the country, most notably in terms of individual freedoms and rights.

In fact, Singapore remains a country where the state exercises tight controls over speech. In 2014, Reporters without Borders' Press Freedom Survey ranked Singapore among the lowest countries in Southeast Asia for press freedoms, behind Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that Lee's "tremendous" role in Singapore's economic development is beyond doubt, "But it also came at a significant cost for human rights, and today's restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy".

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