Singapore opposition chief draws flak for hitting Lee's rule

Party chief Low Thia Khiang dismisses talk of a rift within the Workers' Party. (Yahoo! photo/Melissa Law)

The leader of Singapore's parliamentary opposition on Thursday set off a firestorm after he called the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew a "controversial" figure and said many were "sacrificed" during the period of nation-building.

Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the Workers' Party, was immediately slammed by Lee supporters after making the remarks in a special parliamentary sitting called to honour the former leader three days after his death.

Low's party holds seven of the 87 seats in parliament, with Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) occupying the rest.

"The founding prime minister was an extraordinary political leader born out of (a) turbulent and uncertain era," Low said during the televised session, held in the same building where Lee's remains were lying in state.

Speaking in Mandarin with a simultaneous translation into English, Low agreed with the popular assessment that Lee was largely responsible for Singapore's prosperity.

But he added: "I don't think that the PAP one-party rule is the key to Singapore's fast economic development, strong social cohesion and unitedness."

"This is because many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation-building and policymaking, and our society has paid a price for it," he said.

"This is why Mr Lee is also a controversial figure in some people's eyes," he added, causing a mild stir in the chamber and enraging Singaporeans watching on TV.

Lee, who died at 91, is credited with transforming Singapore into a wealthy society but was also criticised for entrenching a system that called for one dominant political party, the muzzling of the press and curbing political liberties.

Low's speech drew strong responses online.

"Politicizing Death. I am utterly disappointed. I hope he knows when is the right time to make such insensitive remarks," wrote reader Kenneth Yeo on the Straits Times' Facebook page.

Others said Low was being objective and just stating the facts.

At the height of Lee's powers as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, a number of political opponents went bankrupt due to costly libel suits.

Other PAP opponents went into self-exile while alleged radicals were held without charge under internal-security laws.

The Workers' Party stunned the PAP, now led by Lee's son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when it seized the working-class Aljunied area in the 2011 elections, giving it five seats under a block-voting system.

The PAP's share of the total votes fell to 60 percent in the election, its lowest since coming to power, and the Workers' Party went on to win two by-elections.

Lee's remains are lying in state in parliament, where nearly 125,000 people had paid their respects by sundown Thursday, according to the government, with thousands more waiting outside.

A bouquet of white flowers occupied his vacant seat in parliament during Thursday's special session. Lee is to be cremated after a state funeral on Sunday.