SINGAPORE - There is more than one qualified candidate to become the next prime minister, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament on Wednesday (May 16).
He expects the next PM to emerge before the next general election, which is due by 2021.
"We are fortunate that this is so, as it provides strength and depth to the team. Now it is about the team coming to a consensus on the best option," he said during the third day of debates on the President's Address.
This new leader will have no other option than to work closely with the other ministers as a team to succeed, he said. This means being able to complement one another's strengths and weaknesses, make team decisions and taking collective responsibility for them.
Said Mr Lee: "This working together is just as important, if not more important, than the question of who should be the next PM... If they cannot or do not do so, the next PM will fail, whoever he is."
With Mr Lee having said that he wished to step down as PM some time after the next general election, there has been speculation about who would succeed him. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung are seen as the front-runners to be the next PM.
On Wednesday, Mr Lee said he knows Singaporeans are anxious to know who the next PM will be but added: "These things take time, and cannot be forced."
"I do not believe we are ready to settle on a choice yet. Nor is it helpful to treat this either as a horse race or a campaign to lobby support for one or the other candidate," he added.
In his speech, Mr Lee noted that his government and that of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, were supported by talented core teams of ministers.
All three PMs were not sole leaders, said Mr Lee, but are "primus inter pares" - first among equals in Latin - with the other leaders.
Mr Lee noted that the late Mr Lee had likened his role to that of a conductor when he received the Freedom of the City of London in 1982.
The late Mr Lee had said then: "I feel like a conductor at a concert bowing to applause, but unable to turn around and invite the accomplished musicians in his orchestra to rise and receive the ovation for the music they have played."
Noting that the fourth-generation (4G) team is now in place, Mr Lee said creating such a "stalwart" team for the next PM was his goal in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. Two-thirds of ministries are now helmed by 4G ministers, he added.
Mr Lee called for the 4G team to be given time and space to do their work and to become better known to the public.
"I am confident that in the fullness of time we will see a clear outcome, and a leader will emerge from the process. Certainly I expect this to happen before the next General Election," he said.
In his speech, Mr Lee stated that the future government should act as the steward of the country, rather than its owner or manager.
The Government must keep faith with the past generations and be responsible to the present generation, and continue to build on what was inherited, he said.
Above all, the Government must think of the interests of future generations of Singaporeans and act on their behalf, making wise and far-sighted decisions to enable the country to endure and flourish for many more years.
Mr Lee noted that Mr Heng had wrapped up this year's Budget debate by describing the budget as one that meets the needs of both the current and the future generations.
He said: "I am confident that when the time comes for me to hand over to a new Prime Minister, Singapore will be in the hands of good stewards."