Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's intention to step down after the next general election, and therefore the choice of his successor, was highlighted by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong recently. Mr Goh said he hoped that the fourth-generation ministers would choose a leader among themselves in six to nine months' time, so that Mr Lee could designate his potential successor formally before the end of the year. Mr Goh's decision to go public with a timeline for succession could well be an attempt to encourage the younger leaders to come to a consensus. The fourth-generation ministers responded to him in a statement that said they would choose a leader "in good time".
It is natural that the name of that leader should excite the political imagination of Singaporeans. Everybody would wish to know who the next leader will be. However, the name will be less important than what it will signify. Singapore is not like countries where governments come and go, and even the premiership can change hands within the electoral tenure of the same ruling party. In many of those nations, the political turnover does not exact a perceptible cost from the economy and society. Things continue as usual except for new names attached to old positions. This country is different. Here, neither size nor history is a guarantor of sovereignty. Instead, a land-and people-scarce city-state has to justify its material and political existence year after year, crisis after international crisis, in peace and in fear of war that could overturn the known world in which it survives and thrives. Singapore is special. That is a blessing which could turn into a curse in the wrong hands.
In the circumstances, the next prime minister, whoever that person is, will have to build on the fundamentals of Singapore's survival and success while fulfilling young expectations in an ageing society. Gone forever are the days when a single policy, or even a small set of related policies, could be expected to answer to the average needs of society. Basic needs in employment, education, housing and healthcare have been taken care of, although there are new problems today. Meanwhile, international horizons are darkening as nations with ancient entitlements rise to challenge the global order created by the Cold War.
The challenge for the next prime minister will be to forge a united team that is able to rally the people behind a set of policies they devise, which secures the present while also re-engineering Singapore for the future. The next leadership team will have to build on, and seek to transcend, the cumulative legacy of those who have brought the country this far. It is a tall order, but small countries must have leaders of stature if they are to be counted at all in the clamorous crowd of larger and more populous nations.