SINGAPORE - Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, one of the towering figures of post-colonial Asian politics, died Monday after a long illness, plunging the city-state he steered to prosperity into mourning.
Lee's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in a statement that he was "deeply grieved" to announce the passing of his 91-year-old father at the Singapore General Hospital.
He declared a seven-day period of national mourning before the late leader is cremated on March 29.
Lee's remains will first be taken to the Istana state complex for a two-day private family wake before lying in state at Parliament House for five days for the public to pay their respects.
US President Barack Obama led world leaders in hailing Lee, an autocratic politician who dominated Singapore politics for half a century.
"He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs," Obama said in a statement.
"Lee Kuan Yew was a legendary figure in Asia, widely respected for his strong leadership and statesmanship," a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
Lee, whose health rapidly deteriorated after his wife died in 2010, was in hospital for nearly seven weeks with severe pneumonia.
Two years before he died, Lee revealed that he had signed a medical directive instructing doctors not to use any life-sustaining treatment if he could not be resuscitated.
He served as prime minister from 1959, when colonial ruler Britain granted Singapore self-rule, to 1990, leading Singapore to independence in 1965 after a brief and stormy union with Malaysia.
In 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was the US president, and when Lee stepped down,the first George Bush was in the White House.
Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, said that Lee's death "certainly marks the end of an era", adding that "it raises the question of how Singapore is going to go from here".
The widely revered Singapore patriarch's passing is also likely to cast a pall over preparations for the city-state's 50th anniversary of independence on August 9.
Disproportionate international profile
On Lee's watch, Singapore became a sea trade, air transport and financial hub as well as a high-tech industrial centre, prospering despite its compact size and lack of basic natural resources.
"I have to say his success is in taking advantage of Singapore's natural assets, by which I particularly mean using its geography at the end of the Malay peninsula and on the end of the Malacca Strait," said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Australia who wrote a book on Lee's career.
On the diplomatic front, Lee's counsel was often sought by Western leaders, particularly on China - which Lee identified early as a driver of world economic growth - as well as more volatile neighbours in Southeast Asia.
Singapore-based political analyst Derek da Cunha told AFP that "Lee Kuan Yew gave Singapore an international profile completely disproportionate to the country's size." But the British-trained lawyer was also criticised for jailing political opponents and driving his critics to self-imposed exile or financial ruin as a result of costly libel suits.
Singapore strictly controls freedom of speech and assembly and, while it has become more liberal in recent years, still uses corporal punishment for crimes considered relatively minor elsewhere, such as spraying graffiti.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, acknowledged Lee's economic legacy but said "it also came at a significant cost for human rights", adding that younger Singaporeans are asking when greater political liberalisation can take place.
"Now that Lee Kuan Yew has passed from the scene, perhaps that long overdue conversation can finally proceed."
'I am satisfied'
Lee stepped down in 1990 in favour of his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who in turn handed the reins to the former leader's eldest child Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.
The People's Action Party (PAP), which was co-founded by the elder Lee, has won every election since 1959 and currently holds 80 of the 87 seats in parliament.
Lee retired from advisory roles in government in 2011 after the PAP suffered its worst poll result since it came to power, getting only 60 per cent of votes cast amid public anger over a large influx of immigrants, the rising cost of living, urban congestion and insufficient supply of public housing.
He rapidly began to look feeble after his wife of 63 years, Kwa Geok Choo, died in 2010, and has rarely appeared in public in the last two years.
In his last book "One Man's View of the World", published in 2013, Lee looked back at his remarkable career and concluded: "I am not given to making sense out of life - or coming up with some grand narrative on it - other than to measure it by what you think you want to do in life." "As for me, I have done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability. I am satisfied."