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Leadership succession takes on fresh urgency as big challenges loom

It is still anyone's guess who Singapore's fourth prime minister will be, but the challenges ahead, the themes of PM Lee's rally speech, have emerged in sharp relief

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong waves to the audience after returning to the stage to finish his speech after an intermission following a near-fainting spell. It was a heart-in-mouth moment for the 1,400 in the audience, and the thousands more watching the live broadcast of the speech at home and around the world on Sunday.

OH no, not again.

Those were the first words that raced through Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's mind, he wrote in a Facebook post, as he witnessed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's dizzy spell on stage during the National Day Rally on Sunday.

It was a heart-in-mouth moment for the 1,400 in the audience, and the thousands more watching the live broadcast of the speech at home and around the world on Sunday.

Almost immediately, the cameras cut away from Mr Lee as Cabinet ministers and security officers scrambled to his aid and helped him off the stage for medical attention.

Thankfully, the prime minister's condition was deemed not serious. To the surprise of many, he returned to the auditorium, after more than an hour's rest, to finish delivering his annual address to the nation.

It was a tremendous relief to see him stride in confidently and smiling; he even cracked a couple of jokes that went a long way to easing the tension in the hall.

After all, it could well have been more than just a near-fainting spell. Many will recall that just three months ago, Finance minister Heng Swee Keat, a key member of the fourth-generation leadership, collapsed from a stroke at the Istana; a spell in intensive care had followed.

Mr Lee, himself diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, underwent surgery to remove his prostate gland. Singaporeans heaved a sigh of relief when he came through what was his second brush with cancer; he had recovered from lymphoma in 1993; there was another collective sigh of relief when it was announced that Mr Heng has since been pronounced fit enough to return to work.

It was telling that when Mr Lee resumed his rally, he decided not to continue where he left off on the upcoming changes to the elected presidency system.

Instead, he chose to reiterate that one of the most urgent tasks on his must-do list is leadership succession; that he wants to assemble and put in place the next team to take over from him and his other senior colleagues is a point he has returned to several times before - before and during campaigning at the 2011 and 2015 general elections, at the May Day Rally, at ministerial dialogues, and many other events.

At Sunday's National Day Rally, he stressed that nothing had changed his timetable or resolve to press on with succession. His goal is to reinforce his team again at the next polls, with his successor ready to take over soon after.

Mr Lee, Singapore's third prime minister who took office in 2004, doesn't have the luxury of time. He is 64 this year and will be 68 or so by the time he sends the nation to the ballot boxes again.

The late Lee Kuan Yew was at the helm for 31 years and was 67 when he passed the baton to Goh Chok Tong, who stepped down at 63 after 14 years in charge.

It is still anyone's guess who Singapore's fourth leader will be, but the challenges ahead are clear. There is a pressing task for the new leadership is to deal with the ongoing impact of disruption, which Mr Lee singled out as the "defining challenge" for the economy in the years to come.

Of all the economic issues on the table - slower growth, helping people upgrade and strengthening safety nets - he warned that technological change and globalisation would be fast and relentless, and disruption would take place repeatedly.

All eyes will be on the work of the Committee on the Future Economy, which is busy piecing together a strategy to respond to successive disruptions, beef up the resilience of companies, and prepare people to do different or new jobs.

Singapore needs a confluence of many factors to come together to remain ahead of the curve: a highly skilled workforce, entrepreneurs with fire in their belly, a society that is both united and resilient, and above all, a team of capable leaders ready and willing to steer the ship in the right direction.

It may seem an awful lot to ask for, but that is the harsh reality of the competitive and unpredictable world we now live in.