A PILLAR of stability, Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s independence leader, Lee Kuan Yew, has run the country since 2004. Despite a decline in his party’s popularity, the manicured electoral system has returned him to office time and again, most recently in 2015. The country is now more than halfway to the next election, which must be held in 2021 at the latest. As it nears, a tricky subject looms: who will replace Mr Lee? He plans to step down as prime minister ahead of his 70th birthday in 2022. The question has the government on edge.

Mr Lee will almost certainly win the next election. The ruling People’s Action Party has held power since before independence in 1965. It holds 83 of the 89 elected seats in Singapore’s parliament. Predicting the identity of the next prime minister is trickier. But a cabinet reshuffle this week provided clues. Three older ministers, all in their 60s, stepped down. Younger ones won more responsibility.

Mr Lee’s possible successors include Heng Swee Keat, the finance minister, Ong Ye Kung, the education minister and Chan Chun Sing, newly promoted from the prime minister’s office to the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Mr Heng, who has led the education ministry and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, as well as serving as an aide to Mr Lee’s father, is regarded as the frontrunner. One former official praises him for his growing ease in the public eye, despite not being “a natural politician”. Wonkishness does not tend to hold Singaporean politicians back. His health, however, might: he suffered a stroke in 2016.

Public opinion is unlikely to play much part in the decision. In fact, the government is further crimping freedom of speech in a country not exactly known for it. In March parliament passed a law that allows police to ban the dissemination of videos or pictures of certain events. The sorts of incidents that qualify range from terrorist attacks to demonstrations that block pavements or disrupt business. Plans to put cameras linked to facial-recognition software on more than 100,000 lampposts will further discourage even the most respectable protests. Social media are also being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee which wants to fight “deliberate online falsehoods”. Whoever ends up in charge, the government will be well defended against unruly critics.