NEW DELHI - Singaporeans will have to wait a little longer to find out who their next prime minister is.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Jan 26) that no new deputy prime ministers will be appointed during the Cabinet reshuffle, which he said would take place after this year's Budget in February.
This suggests there will be no clear front runners made known to the public even after the Cabinet reshuffle.
"My assessment is, it probably will take a little bit longer," he added, when asked about a timeline suggested by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong last December.
Mr Goh had said he hoped that younger ministers will choose their leader in the first six to nine months of this year, and that this person can be made PM-designate within 2018.
PM Lee said: "ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it's a very serious matter."
He added: "The team is taking shape. The dynamics amongst them, they are working it out. They are learning to work together.
"Also, they need a bit of time for Singaporeans to get a feel of them - not just to be known as public figures, but to be responsible for significant policies... carrying them, justifying them, defending them, adapting them, making them work, and showing that they deserve to lead.
"I would not be able to say for certain that it will be settled within the next six to nine months, but it will have to be done in good time. I'm confident it will be."
The Cabinet reshuffle, said PM Lee, will be "a significant step in exposing and building the new team, and putting them into different portfolios".
"Successor designation - that will depend on the dynamics and I would not say that that is imminent."
He added: "If it is settled, everybody will know."
PM Lee was speaking to Singapore media in New Delhi as he wrapped up his visits to Sri Lanka and India. He was among the 10 Asean leaders attending India's Republic Day Parade on Friday as chief guests. He returns to Singapore on Saturday.
The race to be Singapore's next PM is generally viewed by observers as having narrowed to three candidates: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.
On whether these are indeed the front runners, PM Lee said: "I think they are all good ministers."
Asked if he had somebody in mind who is best suited for the job of PM, he said: "I think there is a strong team."
He added that many people see the leadership as being "personalised as one person".
"Actually, there's a team. The team works together and they have one - Mr Lee Kuan Yew said - striker. Now, you have to strike from time to time, but you're really also sometimes spokesman on behalf of the team, bringing together a collective wisdom and giving voice to that."
"In the next team, that aspect of it will have to be even more important," he said.
As for whether he will make known to the younger ministers his views on the relative strengths of each member of the team, PM Lee said: "If they ask me my views, I will try my best to be helpful."
"I know that Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) from time to time used to give his public views of younger members of his team and what their strengths were. The then younger members of his team found it always a little bit awkward to be put under the spotlight, and I don't think I need to do that to my younger ministers."
PM Lee's remarks come less than a month after 16 younger leaders from the People's Action Party said in a statement in response to ESM Goh's call that they understand the issue of leadership succession is a pressing one, and that they will choose a leader from among themselves "in good time".
Commenting on the statement, Mr Lee cast doubt on the idea that this is an exhaustive list of fourth-generation of ministers.
He noted that "a lot was made" of the fact that a few senior ministers of state were left out of the statement. Those who did not sign were: Dr Lam Pin Min, Dr Maliki Osman and Mr Heng Chee How.
PM Lee said: "They didn't intend to (leave them out), and I don't think you should put a lot of weight on that."
Mr Lee has said in the past he intends to hand over the reins to his successor after the next election - and sooner after it, rather than later. This remains unchanged, he said on Friday.
If so, what role will this person, once he is chosen, play in fighting the next general election, which has to be called by April 2021?
Mr Lee said: "He will have to pull his weight and... show that he deserves to be what his peers and his colleagues in Cabinet think that he can do.
"This is necessary. If you're unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be a great planner, but you have to be in politics."