Singapore Monday began mourning founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died overnight, with glowing media coverage as tributes poured in from world leaders for the both revered, and feared, man who built a small port city into a powerhouse of trading and finance.

Lee, who “passed away peacefully” in hospital at 91 after a bout with pneumonia, ruled Singapore for 31 years. He stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and left government in 2011, but he remained a towering figure — and one of Asia’s most influential statesmen — whose distaste for corruption and criticism set the tone for the modern-day city-state.

His death leaves Singapore, hugely wealthy, impressively orderly, and buzzing with commerce, in unchartered territory as a small but growing percentage of the country questions the one-party monolith Lee forged.

Singapore’s tightly-scripted state television broke away from regular programming Monday and aired a rolling tribute to Lee’s life and achievements. Television anchors said the death of the increasingly frail Lee had been dreaded.

Glowing tributes flowed in from world leaders, including President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party, has died at age 91. Lee led Singapore’s rise from British tropical outpost to global trade and financial center. (Reuters)

Obama called Lee a “true giant of history” and described his leadership — during which the tiny city-state became one of the world’s most prosperous countries — as “remarkable.” Obama met Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009.

Obama said Lee was also “hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific.”

Singapore’s government has declared seven days of national mourning with flags flying at half-mast on state buildings. No national holiday has been declared, however, and daily life in the bustling, intensely commercial city continued unabated.

Lee, who led multiracial Singapore with an iron fist, commanded respect from Singaporeans, who this year celebrate 50 years of independence. The tiny, resource-poor city was a British outpost in Asia and under Lee’s leadership was transformed into an Asian finance and trade center with hardly any crime and little corruption.

His death brings Singapore to a moment of both grief and national anxiety. Among the central questions is whether Singaporeans — particularly a more outspoken younger generation, influenced by democratization movements elsewhere and facing slowing economic growth and rising inequality — will continue to accept what for decades has been a national paradox: economic liberty but little freedom of expression.

Singapore has been governed since its founding by the People’s Action Party. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew’s son. He said Monday that Singapore would never see another man like his father.

Singapore’s government is nominally democratic, but the PAP has overwhelming influence over the media and judiciary and has gerrymandered districts to give it an electoral edge.In the 2011 election, the party faired poorly — by its standards of dominance — with a fragmented opposition grabbing 40 percent of the vote.

Lee Hsein Loong said in an interview with Singaporean journalists this year that there was “no certainty” the dominance of one party would continue. “You make one small change — the [political] sky can change,” he said.“And that is not a comfortable position to be in.”

[Read: Singapore tries to imagine a future without its founder, Lee Kuan Yew]

A stream of grieving messages grew Monday on the official Facebook page of the prime minister’s office. Nearly all were admiring.

“You have done Singapore proud,” one post said. “A tiny red dot [on the map] becomes world famous because of you.”

But others have mixed feelings about Lee’s legacy. Commentator Carlton Tan, 28, wrote in a recent column that Singaporeans “simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man.”

“We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms,” Tan continued. “We are grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can maintain it without a strong civil society.”

“We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms,” Tan continued. “We are grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can maintain it without a strong civil society.”

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that while the economic development Lee oversaw is “beyond doubt,” it came at a “significant cost,” with restrictions and self-censorship that “Singapore now needs to overcome.”

Singapore is only about three times the size of Washington and has maintained relative peace despite its mish-mash of ethnicities and proximity to traditional powers. The country maintains close trade and defense ties to the U.S., and Singapore has spoke favorably about the Obama Administration’s avowed pivot toward Asia.

Now that Lee Kuan Yew has passed from the scene,” Robertson wrote, “perhaps that long overdue conversation [about political liberalization] can finally proceed.”Singapore is only about three times the size of Washington D.C., and has maintained relative peace despite its mish-mash of ethnicities and proximity to traditional powers.” The country maintains close trade and defense ties to the U.S., and Singapore has spoke favorably about the Obama Administration’s avowed pivot toward Asia.

Deane reported from London.

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