It was the fall of 2005, and Lee Kuan Yew had been engaged in a nearly five-hour interview with TIME over two days. The conversation turned to family and friends, and faith as a source of strength in the face of adversity. “I would not score very highly on religious value,” said Lee, then 82, still in good health. Yet when he talked about the illnesses and deaths of loved ones, Lee allowed himself a moment of vulnerability: his eyes welled up.
Emotional is not a word associated with the hardheaded, severe and disciplined Lee. Neither, seemingly, is mortal–Lee was so enduring a public figure for so long that he appeared to transcend impermanence. But in recent years a mellowing Lee openly broached the subject of dying: he felt himself growing weaker with age, he said, and wanted to go quickly when the time came.
The time was 3:18 a.m. on March 23, when the 91-year-old Lee, Singapore’s Prime Minister for three decades, died in the 50th year of independence of the city-state that he molded into one of the most sophisticated places on the planet. His nation mourned his passing. “He inspired us, gave us courage, kept us together and brought us here,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s son. “He … made us proud to be Singaporeans.”
Lee’s life traced a long arc of modern East Asian history, with the last vestiges of colonialism, the advent of affluence, the introduction of democracy (albeit flawed and limited), the spread of globalization, the decline of Japan and the rise of China, and now the retreat to nationalism. He was not so much an architect of change–his stage, Singapore, was, perhaps regrettably for him, too small to be a global player–as an observer of the way of the world, from nation building to geopolitics to terrorism and everything in between. Overseas, Lee was largely seen as a statesman–“legendary” (Barack Obama), “brilliant” (Rupert Murdoch), “never wrong” (Margaret Thatcher). Upon his death, a chorus of world leaders paid tribute to him.
But at home Lee was above all the man in charge. His ethos was both broad and narrow, often controversial and always trenchant. Government required a long reach. Economic development needed to precede democracy, and even then, civil liberties should be restricted and dissent monitored, even curtailed. The community trumped the individual. “Asian values” is what Lee and his ilk called their credo.
Although Singapore holds open elections and Lee’s party always won big–partly because it delivered, partly because it commanded the most resources–he was not always a fan of democracy. “[Its] exuberance leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development,” he said. “The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps … improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” Whether Lee intended it or not, his template for Singapore became a model for many authoritarian governments that saw its success as an example of how prosperity could be achieved while controlling freedom.
Lee even sweated the small stuff. Citizens were told to flush public toilets. Most kinds of chewing gum were banned. Spitters were heavily fined, and for some offenses, authorities inflicted caning as punishment. That some of Lee’s social strictures drew mockery or censure abroad mattered little to him. The de facto covenant was this: Singapore’s officials would run the city-state effectively and cleanly, and in return its people would toe the line. “If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one,” Lee unapologetically wrote in his memoirs.
Today Singapore is not as tightly wound as before. Its citizens are more vocal and the government more responsive to their grievances. But such burdens of office are no longer for Lee. No-nonsense to the end, he didn’t overthink his legacy. “I am not given to making sense out of life, or coming up with some grand narrative of it,” he wrote in 2013. “I have done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability. I am satisfied.” So passes the man from Singapore, who became a man of his time.
–ZOHER ABDOOLCARIM AND NEEL CHOWDHURYN
This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.