Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore and a giant of postwar Asian history, was fond of saying that his country never should have existed. "To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny," he said in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. "So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit."
Lee was being modest. The statesman, who died at the age of 91 on Sunday following a bout with pneumonia, helped to transform his impoverished homeland into one of the world's most prosperous societies, a business and transportation hub that has enjoyed decades of peace, stability, and economic growth. This success wasn't accidental. Lee's embrace of international trade—buoyed by the territory's strategic location along shipping lines—turned Singapore into an attractive destination for foreign investment. And by insisting that Singapore's 5.3 million citizens adopt English as an official language, Lee helped foster a shared identity among the country's Chinese, Indian, and Malay ethnicities, grouped together in new, ethnically mixed apartment buildings.
"With the possible exception of Cuba under Fidel Castro, it's hard to think of another country where one leader left such a firm imprint," said Ali Wyne, a Singapore expert and analyst at Wikistrat.