Singapore — There is a joke going the rounds here that Singapore has become the ''land of the rising son.'' The son is Lee Hsien Loong, recently retired as No. 2 in the Singapore Armed Forces. And the father is Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said this week that he plans to retire within four to five years.
In the past three months, Lee Hsien Loong has risen from the rank of colonel to brigadier-general, and as a reservist has been appointed political secretary to the defense minister.
Now he is one of 24 ''new guard'' candidates chosen by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to run in this December's general elections. The ruling party hopes that Hsien Loong, the youngest candidate, will appeal to a younger, better-educated electorate. He is also the first military officer to enter politics.
The emergence of the younger Lee on the political scene at this particular moment has suggested to many Singaporeans he is being groomed for great things - such as stepping into his father's shoes.
PAP justifies the selection of Lee and the other 23 young newcomers as vital to ensure that after the retirement of the ''old guard'' - which saw Singapore through its birth pangs 25 years ago - there will be qualified people emerging to guarantee prosperity and stability.
A university degree or a solid professional record now counts more than political credentials, and several PAP old-timers without good academic qualifications have been persuaded to step aside this election.
The prime minister, while saying he will step aside when he reaches the age of 65 in 1988, has suggested the possibility of a constitutional change allowing for an elected president - an office he might seek himself. Lee has not yet named a successor, but has been grooming several younger men as possibles - Finance Minister Tony Tan, minister without portfolio Ong Teng Cheong, and Defense Minister Goh Chok Tong being the front-runners.
In a televised interview with several foreign journalists last month, the prime minister said the race would be tough now that his son had decided to enter politics.
He admitted his son would be an obvious choice to take over the reins of power, but he would have to work his way up by ability alone. Building a family dynasty was out of the question, he added.
In a recent interview, Lee Hsien Loong said it would be ''very presumptuous'' for the younger generation of members of Parliament to aspire to take over immediately. He refused to speculate on what post he might take, if asked, in the next government, saying, ''I have a lot to learn in politics and a lot to learn outside the Singapore Armed Forces.''
The PAP leadership is sensitive to suggestions of nepotism or the establishment of a Lee dynasty. Government ministers reacted angrily in Parliament recently when lone opposition member J.B. Jeyaretnam questioned the rapid promotion of the younger Lee.
Lee has spent 13 years in the Army, although five of these involved earning a mathematics degree from Cambridge University, and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University.
Amid all the controversy, Lee Hsien Loong is telling the voters in his electorate: Judge me on my personal merit and record, not on my name.