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Leadership succession presents an 'urgent challenge' for Singapore

Ministers' New Year messages highlight ongoing uncertainty over who will replace Lee

From left: Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE Singapore is facing an increasingly urgent question of leadership succession, with prominent ministers voicing concerns over the issue as the city-state prepared to welcome the start of the new year.

Lee Hsien Loong, the country's third prime minister, has been in power since 2004. Deciding who will replace him, and soon, seems to be sparking some anxiety.

On Dec. 31, former Prime Minister and current Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong described succession as an "urgent challenge" for the country in a Facebook post and stated a desire to see the issue settled. "Each cohort will have to pick one [among] themselves to lead, and support him," he said. "I hope the current cohort will do so in six to nine months' time."

In his New Year's message delivered the same day, Lee said that when the government lays out its agenda in May, it will "bear the imprint of the fourth-generation leadership, who are taking on greater responsibilities, and putting forth their ideas for Singapore."

Lee, who turns 66 in February, expressed his intention to step down in the next couple of years in an interview with CNBC in October, during which he also said his successor was "very likely" already a member of the cabinet.

Three cabinet ministers, each of whom has risen quickly through the ranks, are seen as key contenders for the position: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56; Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, 48; and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, 48.

But if one of those three does end up being chosen, he will come into the top job with relatively little experience.

Heng, a former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, entered politics in 2011 and took on his current role after serving as education minister until 2015.

Chan was also elected to parliament in 2011 and assumed his current post in 2015. He also serves as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress.

Ong has only been in office since 2015 and became education minister in 2016.

All have shorter and less wide-ranging cabinet experience than previous prime ministers. Lee, who took on the premiership at the age of 52, had served as deputy prime minister for 14 years, as well as finance minister and minister of trade and industry.

Goh was 49 when he succeeded the country's first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, in 1990. By that time, he already had over a decade of ministerial experience, having served as the first deputy prime minister and trade minister, as well as defense minister.

Given the paths taken by Lee and Goh, it is assumed that whoever will eventually become the next leader will be given a high-profile post in the next cabinet reshuffle.

Singapore's next generation will face different challenges than those their predecessors grappled with. Estimated gross domestic product for 2017 marked a steady rise of 3.5%, but that compares with 9.5% in 2004, when Lee came to power. Moreover, the aging of the population is becoming an ever-bigger issue for the city-state.

On Jan. 4, a group of 16 younger-generation ministers, including Heng, Chan and Ong, made a joint statement apparently intended as a response to Goh's and Lee's remarks.

"The younger ministers are keenly aware that leadership succession is a pressing issue and that PM Lee intends to step down after the next general election," they said.

"We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team and will settle on a leader from among us in good time."

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