It is for the younger members of the Cabinet to decide among themselves who the next prime minister will be, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.
"They have to decide because they have to support him, and help to make the system, make the team work," he said at a special session of the 22nd Nikkei International Conference on The Future of Asia in Tokyo.
Mr Lee was responding to a question on Singapore's leadership succession from moderator Sonoko Watanabe, editor-in-chief of business publication Nikkei Asian Review. His remarks came a day after Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 59, categorically ruled himself out of the running to succeed Mr Lee, 64, who has been Prime Minister since 2004.
The question of Singapore's political leadership succession took on added significance after Mr Lee took ill during his National Day Rally speech last month. He returned after an hour to speak, and has been given a clean bill of health.
Mr Lee himself has repeatedly said that he plans to step down some time after the next general election, which must be held by April 2021.
At the forum yesterday, he said Singapore wants its leaders to be "able people, good people, committed people - people who can connect with the population, who can lead Singapore, who are prepared to fight for what they believe in and fight for what they can do together".
Based on these qualities, he has assembled "to the best of my ability" a team in the Cabinet, he said.
As for who will eventually assume his mantle, PM Lee said: "I've said (before that) very likely the next PM will come from amongst the younger members of my Cabinet. Who, (that) is up to them to work out among themselves and I hope in good time - I'm sure in good time - a consensus will develop among them as to who the next leader will be."
Mr Tharman had told reporters on Wednesday that the next prime minister would come from the fourth-generation leaders, one of whom would emerge as "first amongst equals during the next term of government".
But he said there was no urgency to see succession take place in this term of government as PM Lee is healthy, and "on top of the challenges that Singapore faces".
Still, observers noted yesterday that no clear successor had yet been identified, unlike in the two previous leadership transitions.
Mr Goh Chok Tong was deputy prime minister for five years before taking on the top job, while Mr Lee held the deputy post for 14 years.
"We are definitely behind schedule," said former People's Action Party MP Inderjit Singh. "Today, Singaporeans have not yet seen a clear leader emerging and this worries many," he added.
Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad also said residents are concerned, and ask him "all the time" who the next prime minister will be. "My guess is that it's a case of two to three potential leaders, and PM is still giving everyone chances to show what he or she can achieve," he said.
Observers have tipped Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and labour chief Chan Chun Sing as being among those with the potential to become the next prime minister.
As for the timing of Mr Tharman's remarks, Singapore Management University law don and former Nominated MP Eugene Tan believes it is to "manage public expectations and ensure that the focus is on the fourth-generation leadership rather than him".
He added: "It's a prudent measure to not let the public lack clarity as to the leadership succession plans."