SINGAPORE - Singapore mourned longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew with raw emotion and a blanket of relentlessly positive coverage on its tightly scripted state television Monday, mythologizing a man who was as respected as he was feared.
The government announced that Lee, 91, "passed away peacefully" several hours before dawn at Singapore General Hospital. He was hospitalized in early February with severe pneumonia.
State TV broke away from its regular programming with a rolling hagiographic tribute to Lee's life and achievements. In a live broadcast, one of its reporters called the death the "awful and dreaded" news. Effusive tributes flowed in from world leaders, including President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A self-proclaimed authoritarian who saw the world in stark realist terms, Lee commanded respect from Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the country's 50th anniversary of independence. He led multiracial Singapore with an iron grip for more than three decades until 1990, and is credited with transforming the resource-poor island into a wealthy finance and trade entrepot with low crime and little corruption.
Singapore's government has declared seven days of national mourning, and flags will fly at half-staff on state buildings. A national holiday has not been declared, and daily life in this pragmatically commercial city of vaulting glass towers and broad, immaculate streets continues to bustle.
Still, there were tears and a deep sense of loss among Singaporeans who lionize Lee for his role in creating an oasis of stability in a region saddled with corruption, political violence, and poverty. Many feel he provided them with a roof over their heads by creating a system of state-subsidized housing where the majority of Singaporeans live.
Lee's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, struggled to hold back tears in a televised address.
Speaking in Malay, Mandarin, and English, he said Lee built a nation and gave Singaporeans a proud identity.
"We won't see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore," he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Lee's "tremendous" role in Singapore's economic development is beyond doubt. "But it also came at a significant cost for human rights,," he said.