It is getting more difficult to persuade people who are dedicated, able and honest to join politics and serve Singapore, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
But he stressed that this is not just a problem for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
"People think this is the PAP's problem. It is not. It is a national problem. If the PAP cannot persuade honest, dedicated and capable people to serve Singaporeans, and neither can the opposition, it will have grave consequences for everyone," he said on Saturday (Aug 17).
"If people who lack honesty, dedication and competence run the government, the sun must surely set on Singapore," said Mr Goh, who was Prime Minister from 1990 to 2004.
He was speaking to about 950 people who attended the Marine Parade National Day Dinner at Roland Restaurant. Fellow GRC MPs Tan Chuan-Jin and Fatimah Lateef were also present.
Mr Goh noted that Singaporeans want a future that is safe and stable, caring and compassionate, fair and just. To make this a reality, there must be three strengths.
First, an innovative economy that can stay competitive and continue to grow even as it gets harder the more we do so. Second, an enterprising and tough people.
"We have become used to creature comforts like air-conditioning, covered walkways and food from all over the world. Can our people swallow hardships?" Mr Goh asked. "What if our aspirations are not met... Can we find new ways to up our standard of living? Will millennials rise up to the challenge of keeping Singapore glowing?"
Just as much as Singaporeans need to be resilient, strong and enterprising, the country requires a strong and good government - one that can plan long term, unite the people and deliver on promises.
"If our politics is divisive and our people are disunited, the result will be a fragile government. This will leave us vulnerable to foreign interference in our domestic politics."
To achieve these, the nation must find good and dedicated leaders - a task of increasing difficulty.
"Governing is an onerous and underappreciated task," he said. "Many able people who have been approached are not prepared to give up their stable and successful careers for an uncertain and unglamorous political future."
The loss of privacy for themselves and their families due to social media was another factor. But he said that Singaporeans who are asked to serve should consider it carefully.
"Regard it as a call to do more national service for the country. Singapore has shaped you to become who you are. Pay it forward for your children and country, even if it means making personal sacrifices," he said.
Mr Goh recalled asking Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to join politics when Mr Heng was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Mr Goh was MAS chairman at the time.
Mr Heng declined initially, but Mr Goh persisted and Mr Heng eventually "accepted it as a call of duty".
While the current 4G team is honest, dedicated and able, it will be even stronger with more people from the private sector, he said. "We need a well-rounded Cabinet with diverse expertise, knowledge and experiences. We also need younger people to join them now to form the core of the 5G team."
This is not the first time Mr Goh has commented on the importance of political leadership. In a Lianhe Zaobao interview in May, he said that it was increasingly difficult to attract talented people from the private sector to politics.
And at a forum in April, he highlighted the need for leadership that can weigh people's long-term interests against immediate needs, and make tough but balanced decisions.
In his earlier remarks, in Mandarin, at the dinner, Mr Goh said members of the 4G team led by DPM Heng are capable and working well together.
"I am sure they will tell us their vision for Singapore in the coming general election, and lead us towards SG100," he said.
At a separate event on Saturday at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing also spoke on leadership and having politicians who are upfront with their people, on both long-and short-term goals, opportunities and constraints, and the trade-offs that need courage and leadership to execute.