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LEADERSHIP renewal is the most important issue for Singapore at the next general election (GE), said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday.
Speaking at the annual May Day Rally, he said it was important to bring in enough new people who were committed to the country in order to keep Singapore exceptional.
The next general election must be held by January 2017, although observers think it could happen as soon as later this year.
The new team of leaders must be of "high ability, strong character, dedication and gumption" so that Singapore will remain special, Mr Lee told more than 4,000 people at The Star Performing Arts Centre in Buona Vista.
Sitting in the audience were his wife Ho Ching, Cabinet ministers, union and business leaders, and members of the labour movement, most of them clad in colourful polo shirts with the NTUC's signature "U" logo.
"I need your help. Give me and my team your support, so that after the next election, well before the election after the next, a younger team will be ready to lead us forward," said Mr Lee, who is also secretary- general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
The prime minister described his current Cabinet as a balanced one, with a mix of some ministers having over 20 years of experience and fresher ones who came on board after the last election in 2011.
"They have mastered their portfolios, learned about politics, gained the trust of Singaporeans," he said. "But we all grow old and we all need successors."
The task of recruiting capable people to enter politics is "very hard to do", given that only a handful are suitable and even then, it is difficult to persuade them to come on board.
He recalled how, on more than one occasion, those who had been earmarked for politics had politely turned him down. They either said they didn't feel they would fit in or had family members who were against them doing so.
"I am still trying very hard, and I think I'll get a few more people to enter and join politics and stand for election. But we can never have an A-team for Singapore which is too strong," said Mr Lee.
He urged caution when people remark that Singapore need not worry too much about national leadership. He shared how some have suggested that there is already a good system in place with civil servants knowing what to do, and that it would be "more exciting" to try out a different team of leaders.
"By that logic, since Mercedes has an outstanding F1 car, there is no need to have Lewis Hamilton as the driver to win the F1 championship. The car will drive itself," said Mr Lee, insisting that national leadership made all the difference.
There was a "strong reaction" when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23 because everyone recognised that it was his leadership, together with the first team of ministers, that resulted in the Singapore we have today.
His death reminded people that "exceptional leadership" made a big difference for the country, said PM Lee.
He added that Singapore, as a small country in South-east Asia with just five million people, needed to remain exceptional in order to survive.
"If we are in Europe, you might say 'if I'm something like my neighbours, that's good enough'. But in Singapore, if we say 'let's just be something like our neighbours', I think habis, liao ('finished', in Malay and Hokkien)," said Mr Lee.
Singapore is in a unique position in the world and many countries value its contributions. It is the largest foreign investor in China and Indonesia, countries that are 250 times and 50 times larger than Singapore respectively.
He also pointed out that many dignitaries attended his father's state funeral service in March, including the heads of state and heads of government of Australia, India, Japan and South Korea, and the various Asean leaders. "Would they have done that if Singapore had been an ordinary country, if Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) had been an ordinary leader?" he asked.
The strong regard that others have for Singapore has enabled the country to make friends around the world, given it a voice when events affect the nation, and allowed it freedom of action to set national directions to advance its interests.
"Investors see potential here, our businesses find doors open for them overseas, and our workers enjoy more opportunities to advance. So it's very important that we don't lose that magic," said PM Lee.
In order to stay exceptional, he listed three goals that Singapore must achieve: a successful economy; a hardworking and skilful workforce; and outstanding leadership.