Succession planning has long been a part of the Government's DNA, and the next team of leaders who will helm the country is taking shape, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday.
A key tenet of governance here has always been to ensure that good people will be in charge, he said after attending a Chinese New Year lunch with grassroots leaders from Geylang Serai constituency.
"Mr Lee Kuan Yew has always emphasised political succession, and when I took over, likewise, I planned for succession," he said. "Prime Minister Lee is also working very hard to plan for succession."
His comments to reporters came as the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc) said in its risk rating update last Thursday that health issues affecting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew have put political succession in the spotlight.
Mr Goh, who succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990 and handed over to Mr Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, said the People's Action Party and the Government "always worked on the assumption that you must have people ready to take over".
"In financial institution terms, we call it 'key-man risk'. In other words, if you are running a bank, there can be many risks... One of the important risks will be the key-man risk: Something happens to the key man, what will happen to the company, to the bank? The way we run the Government, we are very conscious that life is fragile. Anything can happen...
"And when that happens, does the country carry on, with good people in charge?"
Succession planning ensures that "when health intervenes, the people who are there, well, they can take over. And then, maybe after one, two years they will find their own feet, and the whole place will still be governed well. So that's a key tenet of the governance that we have in Singapore, taking into account the health".
PM Lee's announcement before Chinese New Year that he needed surgery for prostate cancer was an illustration of life's uncertainties, said Mr Goh, who had surgery for the same illness last November.
Then, less than a week later, came news that the elder Mr Lee, 91, had been warded since Feb 5 for severe pneumonia.
Perc said both cases were a "vivid reminder that Singapore's leadership will also have to undergo important changes".
"It is hard for many Singaporeans even to imagine an island without a member of the Lee family at either the helm or being groomed for it, but that is another reality Singapore will have to face," it added.
"In our risk model, we have not changed any of the grades due to questions surrounding the role of the Lee family in Singapore politics. Our own view is that Singapore already has the systems and institutions in place to deal with this change without much difficulty. It will not fundamentally change risks."
But Perc raised the weightage for systemic risk "since many people, especially Singaporeans, will still be worrying more about what the future holds... for the Republic without the Lees integrally involved in the running of the country".
"There is a difference between worrying about something and its actual impact, but the 'worrying' on its own will hang like a shadow over Singapore at least until the next elections are held."
Perc also said that while the "many giveaways" in the new Budget should help the Government ahead of the next polls - which must be held by January 2017 - it showed the Government was "wrestling with new policy directions that will affect all Singaporeans".
And even if PM Lee's successor is already in Cabinet, the Government still needs to bring in new blood to show that the system is capable of grooming generations of leaders going forward, it added.
This is because they have to deal with policies now being put in place, Perc said, citing productivity goals as an example. It also said "institutional durability" was likely to grow as a focus of attention.
Having outlined Singapore's approach to succession planning, Mr Goh said the team under PM Lee has done well, having addressed difficult issues since the 2011 election. He did not cite any specifically, but hot-button issues included housing, transport and immigration.
"They are also bringing in new members to form a new team. As far as I can see, PM Lee is still working on the team," he said.
"That doesn't mean the future leader after him will not come from the present team. But the present team still needs a few more people to be completed. I know he's looking for more people outside, and by the next election and maybe a few years after that, we can see the entire team more or less shaping up."
Asked if there should be a more defined plan, he said the succession plan "will comprise people in that team".
"It's not for PM or the present team leaders to decide who will be the leader. The timing is not right yet. So PM will want to have a few more people, and the next election, probably, the new team will begin to choose two or three who can be playing forward," he said, referring to the position in a football team.