The health of independent Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew has worsened, the government said Saturday as one of the foremost figures of 20th century Asia struggled with severe pneumonia.
The 91-year-old, widely credited with transforming the city-state from a relative backwater into one of Asia’s wealthiest economies, has been in Singapore General Hospital since February 5 and is being aided by mechanical ventilation, a form of life support.
“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s condition has worsened,” the office of his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in a terse midday statement.
The government said earlier in the week that he was already critically ill.
Floral tributes and cards dedicated to Lee have started to pile up outside the hospital as Singaporeans showed affection for the authoritarian leader who modernised Singapore but was criticised by rights advocates for his iron-fisted rule.
“I cannot bear just sitting at home and listening to the news, not being able to do anything,” retiree Phua Siew Lian, 88, said as she set a bouquet of sunflowers at a designated spot outside the hospital building where Lee is being cared for under tight security.
Lee was prime minister from 1959, when colonial ruler Britain granted Singapore self-rule, to 1990. He led Singapore to independence in 1965 after a brief and stormy union with Malaysia.
His deteriorating health has cast a pall over preparations for the city-state’s 50th anniversary of independence on August 9.
“He deserves to at least see the country he built turn fifty. I’m praying for you sir,” netizen Khalina wrote Saturday on Twitter, using the hashtag #GetWellSoonLKY.
The prime minister posted the latest health bulletin on his Facebook page and was immediately flooded with messages of support for him and his father.
On Lee’s watch, Singapore became a financial hub and high-tech industrial centre despite its lack of natural resources, and Western leaders often sought his views on Asian politics.
But the British-trained lawyer has also been 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.
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 is still an MP for the port district of Tanjong Pagar, but retired from advisory roles in government in 2011.
He had previously held the special cabinet positions of senior minister and later “minister mentor” after stepping down as premier.
In a book published in 2013, Lee said he was feeling weaker by the day and wants a quick death.
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.
Lee has signed an Advance Medical Directive, a legal document instructing doctors not to use any life-sustaining treatment if he cannot be resuscitated.
A 69-year-old retired woman, Amuratham Vytilingam Murugaiyan, was in tears as she laid a card and bouquet outside the hospital Saturday following the latest health bulletin.
“He is a wonderful leader. I vividly remember how he helped us when we were poor,” she said.
“I went to the temple this morning to pray for his recovery.”