Next prime minister very likely in current Cabinet, will take a while to work out who: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Asked if he was close to finding the next prime minister, Mr Lee said: "I think it is very likely that he is in the Cabinet already. But which one? That will take a while to work out." PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's next prime minister is "very likely" to be one of the current Cabinet ministers, but it will take a while to work out who, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The country's next generation of leaders will, in time, have to reach a consensus on who should lead the team, Mr Lee told American news channel CNBC in an interview released on Friday (Oct 20).

He said he has assembled a strong team of younger ministers, who have to establish themselves among their peers, work out their relationships and assess one another.

They will also have to gain the public's confidence, and show their calibre, he added.

Asked if he is close to finding the next prime minister, Mr Lee said: "I think it is very likely that he is in the Cabinet already. But which one? That will take a while to work out."

Political watchers have identified Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, labour chief Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung as among the front runners for the top post.

Mr Lee reiterated that he is ready to step down some time after the next general election, adding: "What I need to make sure of is somebody is ready to take over from me."

This entails building up the team to ensure they can work and carry things forward after he leaves, Mr Lee said.

"They are doing that by being hands-on, by having responsibility for major policies, by taking charge of important, spiky ministries," he added.

Asked if the next general election could be called in the next two years, he replied: "Yes, of course, any time."

On whether he will remain behind the scenes after stepping down, Mr Lee said that is up to the next prime minister.

Mr Lee fielded questions on political succession, foreign relations and domestic issues in the wide-ranging interview.

On whether Singapore, as a developed economy, still needs the Government to act as a "nanny", Mr Lee said Singaporeans have very high expectations of the Government.

He said: "If you ask a Singaporean - on one hand, they will say let us do our own thing. On the other hand, whenever an issue comes up, they will ask, 'What is the Government doing about it?' And they have very high expectations of what the Government should be doing, which is right because they voted for the Government and they expect the Government to be able to perform. So we have to keep that balance."

He added: "No government prospers by saying, 'I do not need to do anything and just by being there, we have made the country thrive'. You have to have an idea of what you need to do, what needs to be fixed, what can be improved, what we should now imagine together, which we did not previously imagine, and having thought of it, decide to do it. That is the government's role."

As to what Singapore is doing to address disruptions brought about by technology, Mr Lee pointed to the SkillsFuture programme that aims to equip workers with news skills and help them stay relevant.

He also highlighted road maps that are being rolled out across 23 industries to identify new areas of growth and what changes need to be made.

"We think that the Government has a constructive and active role to play, and we will do that - working with the industry and fostering the change rather than obstructing it," he said.

Asked about life without founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March 2015, Mr Lee said his father had made sure Singapore would be able to go on without him.

"We miss him, we think of him often, we read his old speeches and we say, 'well, that is still relevant to us today'. The way he puts it still has a ring to it. At the same time, we have to build on that and move forward," PM Lee said.

"Because if we just remained with what he had imagined and what he had done and nothing more, I think he would have been very disappointed."

As to what advice Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have given if he were still alive, PM Lee replied: "I think he would have said, 'Press on, move on! Do not be looking at the rear view mirror. Remember what has happened, understand how you got here, but look forward and press forward'."

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