Next prime minister likely from current Cabinet: PM Lee

The country's next generation of leaders will, in time, have to reach a consensus on who should lead the team, beyond him, PM Lee said in an interview with CNBC.
The country's next generation of leaders will, in time, have to reach a consensus on who should lead the team, beyond him, PM Lee said in an interview with CNBC.PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

Strong team has been assembled, but it will take a while to work out successor, he says

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, beyond him, PM Lee told US news channel CNBC in an interview released yesterday ahead of his visit to the United States.

He spoke about Singapore's relations with the US and China, the North Korean nuclear threat, political succession and domestic issues during the wide-ranging interview.

PM Lee 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, he 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 (Higher Education and Skills) Minister Ong Ye Kung as among front runners for the post.

PM Lee reiterated that he is ready to step down some time after the next general election, but said he has to make sure a successor is ready to take over from him.

This entails building up the next generation of leaders to ensure they can work and carry things forward after he leaves. "They are doing that by being hands-on, by having responsibility for major policies, by taking charge of important, spiky ministries," PM Lee said.

Asked if the next general election - due by early 2021 - 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, he said it is up to the next prime minister.

Asked what he hopes to achieve on his visit to the US from today to Thursday, PM Lee said Singapore hopes to further develop its deep and multi-faceted relationship with the US, which is based on a strategic congruence of views and close cooperation in areas such as defence.

On relations with China, PM Lee said both countries hope to do more together. While there will always be issues where they do not see eye to eye, there are no basic conflicts in perspectives, he added.

As for North Korea's ongoing nuclear provocations, PM Lee said its actions pose an immediate danger to the region, and could shift the strategic balance in North-east Asia in the longer term as South Korea and Japan mull over nuclear capabilities.

Mr Lee also addressed whether Singapore, as a developed economy, still needs the Government to act as a "nanny". Noting that Singaporeans have very high expectations of the Government and its performance, 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?'... So, we have to keep that balance."

Asked about life without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March 2015, PM Lee said: "We miss him, we think of him often, we read his old speeches and we say, 'Well, that is still relevant to us today'... At the same time, we have to build on that and move forward."

And if he were still alive, his advice would be to press on and not look at the rear-view mirror, PM Lee said. "Remember what has happened, understand how you got here, but look forward and press forward."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Next prime minister likely from current Cabinet: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe