Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Founding Father, Dies at 91

Singapore: No oil, no natural resources, very little land.

Lee Kuan Yew, who dominated Singapore politics for more than half a century and transformed the former British outpost into a global trade and finance powerhouse, setting a template for emerging markets around the world, died Monday. He was 91 years old.

Mr. Lee, who led Singapore for just over three decades as its founding prime minister, “passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3.18 am,” the government said in a statement. The elder Mr. Lee had been under intensive care for pneumonia since early February.

Mr. Lee’s core principles—including a focus on clean and efficient government, business-friendly economic policies, and social order—helped attract massive investment and many of the world’s biggest companies to Singapore after he became prime minister in 1959, catapulting living standards to First World status from Third World levels in hardly more than a generation.

Leaders of other countries rushed to copy his model, with some success, though they often fell short because they didn’t rein in corruption or were governing states too big to manage as easily.

Along the way Singapore, now one of the world’s richest nations, drew criticism from rights groups that said it attained its developed-world living standards without adopting full Western-style democracy or some of the freedoms taken for granted in Western societies.

Although Singapore held regular free elections under Mr. Lee, laws proscribing public gatherings and limiting other civil liberties hampered the development of a powerful opposition. Western media called Singapore a “nanny state” and lampooned its attempts to create an orderly society through rules, incentives and ad campaigns, including a famous ban on the sale of chewing gum that was relaxed slightly in 2004.

Mr. Lee argued that Western-style democracy just wasn’t suitable for all nations, and that young countries needed stability and economic development before they could afford the luxuries of democracy and personal liberty in a Western mold.

Writer T.J.S. George, in a biography of Mr. Lee, saw it another way: For Mr. Lee, he wrote, “means never mattered so long as the ends he desired were reached. He ran Singapore like a tightly managed private corporation, paying what he considered good dividends to the shareholders.”

When Mr. Lee assumed power, Singapore was saddled with huge income disparities and a fragile economy as an entrepôt, or trading post. By the mid-1960s, its neighbors, including Malaysia and Indonesia, were turning hostile.

Mr. Lee sought to assert Singapore’s relevance by becoming globally important in certain sectors, with state investments in strategic industries such as ports, shipping, construction and airlines, though he pressured local companies to become efficient enough to compete with their global peers. Many, such as Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications, became highly profitable.

As other Asian economies in the 1960s and 1970s were plagued by social and political upheaval, Mr. Lee’s comparatively stable government was able to establish industrial zones, training colleges for workers, first-class infrastructure and business tax breaks, notably for electronics companies, powering the city-state’s growth as an export hub.

Hundreds of Western companies set up regional headquarters there, with Hewlett-Packard Co. and General Electric Co. among the early investors. Gross domestic product per capita, which stood at $512 in 1965, grew to more than $56,000 in recent years—similar to levels in the U.S. and surpassing those of Japan and Germany.

The government transferred some of the wealth to Singaporeans in the form of subsidized housing and other benefits. Rather than give money directly to the poor and unemployed, Mr. Lee supplied affordable state-built apartments that he encouraged citizens to buy. Today, 90% of Singaporean resident households own their homes, one of the highest rates in the world.

Mr. Lee, who was influenced by socialism in his youth, argued his hard-nosed policies were born of necessity, because tiny Singapore lacked many of the material advantages enjoyed by countries like the U.S., China or even Indonesia, with their vast natural resources, abundant farmland and large populations. What Singapore did have was a prime location along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, which argued for doing everything possible to make it a global trade hub attractive to investors, he reasoned.

His philosophies were further influenced by Confucian ideals, which called for thrift, self-reliance and respect for elders, education and social order. “I stressed that freedom could only exist in an orderly state,” he wrote in a memoir, “From Third World to First.”

Mr. Lee’s success meant that his name became synonymous with Singapore. The political party he co-founded, the People’s Action Party, or PAP, has won every election since 1959—when Singapore became self-governing—and has almost always controlled the vast majority, and at one point all, of the country’s parliamentary seats.

The government was accused of muzzling the local media while PAP leaders peppered opposition politicians with defamation suits. To critics, this was simply harrying an already weak opposition, and made Mr. Lee appear vindictive.

Mr. Lee defended his actions by saying that, unlike Western countries, Singapore wanted its government to be respected. Newspaper owners weren’t elected, he said, and didn’t have the right to champion political causes and potentially destabilize the country.

“Our critics believe we stayed in power because we have been hard on our opponents. This is simplistic,” Mr. Lee wrote in his memoirs. “If we had betrayed the people’s trust we would have been rejected. We led them out of the depths of despair in the 1960s into an era of unprecedented growth and development.”

Mr. Lee later championed the country’s transformation into a high-end hub for financial services, biotech and entertainment.

Known among leaders abroad for his keen intellect, lack of sentimentality and often-impertinent turns of phrase, Mr. Lee’s style at home was more low-key. He spurned the cult of personality adopted by many other Asian leaders of his day, conducting most of his business in the humid island city in short-sleeve shirts and requesting that his family home be demolished after his death and not turned into a monument.

Mr. Lee was born Sept. 16, 1923, in Singapore, which was then a British trading port. His father’s family was originally from China’s Guangdong province and had grown wealthy in trade, though the Great Depression wiped out the fortune. After World War II, Mr. Lee studied law at Cambridge University in England, where he graduated at the top of his class.

After returning to Singapore in 1950, he became a lawyer and built a political base among the blue-collar Chinese-speaking majority. With some socialist colleagues who had also been educated in England as well as Chinese-educated left-wing unionists, and spurred on by the anti-colonialist ideas of the time, Mr. Lee founded the PAP in 1954.

Five years later, Singapore gained self-governing status and Mr. Lee, as leader of the PAP, became prime minister. Singapore later joined the Federation of Malaysia, but separated after two years to become an independent nation in 1965.

In 1990, Mr. Lee stepped down as prime minister but retained cabinet-level advisory roles. His son Lee Hsein Loong became deputy prime minister, before stepping up to prime minister in 2004.

In his later life, the elder Mr. Lee’s strident political style was seen as contributing to the partial erosion of the PAP’s support base. More Singaporeans, better-educated and more affluent than generations past, bristled at the ruling party’s perceived paternalistic brand of governance and began calling for wider political freedoms and action on issues such as the country’s wide gap between rich and poor.

Others felt that the push for greater immigration in the past decade to offset low birthrates and the opening of two successful casinos in 2010 altered Singapore for the worse, making it more attractive for wealthy expatriates and tourists while not always improving the lives of locals.

The discontent has raised questions about the sustainability of the system put in place by Mr. Lee.

In the most recent general election, in May 2011, opposition groups won roughly 40% of the vote, the highest percentage since Singapore became a nation, though the PAP remained overwhelmingly in control of Parliament. Mr. Lee stepped down from the country’s cabinet a week later, saying he was making way for a younger generation.

In recent years, the government of Lee Hsien Loong has moved to loosen the state’s control. Theaters have staged plays that poke fun at the government, and citizens were given more leeway, through blogs and social media, to criticize the PAP’s hold on power.

The elder Mr. Lee largely withdrew from public life after the death of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, in 2010 and his departure from government in 2011, though his occasional health scares have dominated local headlines.

He was hospitalized in February 2014 after suffering an infection that caused fever and a cough, following a brief spell in hospital almost a year prior due to a stroke-like condition. He had also been impaired by a neurological disease that made his movements unsteady.

Mr. Lee, in his memoirs, concluded that Singapore was unlikely to remain static in a fast-moving globalized world: “Will the political system that my colleagues and I developed work more or less unchanged for another generation? I doubt it.”