Being prepared for the unexpected

The surgery for prostate cancer undergone by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong evoked much concern for his well-being. Although the operation is said to have gone well and PM Lee is expected to recover fully from his treatment, the suddenness of it all is a sobering reminder of the vagaries of physical health and also of the need for a sound management of succession risks and contingency in government.

Leadership succession plans at all levels lay the foundation of a system that can secure the nation despite the vicissitudes of supervening events. In statecraft, the collective responsibility of the Cabinet has proven to be a useful convention in buttressing a team approach that strengthens overall management without attenuating the prime minister's central role. This has contributed to the "business as usual" disposition here in times of significant political change. Leadership succession since Independence has been orderly, to the extent that the 1990 leadership transition, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down, was then described by his successor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, as a "non-event".

However, unlike the past two changes at the top, it is less clear now who might step into PM Lee's shoes in due time - "someone who can withstand the test and be able to secure the support of the people, someone who will stand out from our team", even as issues are becoming more complex, as PM Lee had noted.

In a sense, PM Lee's latest brush with cancer, together with his age, sharpens the import of changes that might flow from the next election, as his successor is expected to take over the reins during the next term of government. This assumes, of course, even unforeseen political changes remain manageable, as Singaporeans have become accustomed to expect. But that might prove to be a fraught premise should the future throw up a particularly discomfiting intersection of events.

The sobering news of the PM's ailment might thus cause citizens here to ponder the fragility of the nation's success. Things going swimmingly one day can turn suddenly, as unexpected political, social or economic currents emerge. City-states arguably face greater existential risks, if the fate of Venice and Florence is anything to go by. A hub, indeed any centre of commerce, is prone to various challenges from near and far; while a disparate polity based on symbiotic relationships is subject to the internal forces that can either hold it together or rend it apart. Against this backdrop, it would be prudent for Singaporeans to stay focused on the critical challenges at hand, and united in addressing them.