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FILE PHOTO: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo *** Local Caption *** Lee Hsien Loong

(reuters_tickers)

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was ready to step down in a couple of years time and his successor is likely already in the cabinet but a clear choice has yet to emerge

In an interview with CNBC released on Friday, Lee, 65, the son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, said a new election could be called any time before 2021, when the current five-year parliamentary term ends.

"I am ready," said Lee, when asked if he was prepared to step down in the next couple of years. But he said he needed to make sure there was a successor ready to take over, adding: "there are people in the wings. The question is, who it will be and that will need to be decided."

"I think it's very likely that he would be in the cabinet already but which one, well that would take a while to, to account," Lee said when asked he was close to finding a successor.

Lee was speaking ahead of a visit to the United States starting Sunday - including a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House.

Local media and analysts say Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing, a former army chief and a minister in the prime minister's office, are among potential successors.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam could be a candidate, although he has repeatedly said he does not want the job and he would be a surprise choice because he is a member of the minority ethnic Indian community. Singapore's leader since independence has always been a member of the majority Chinese community.

Questions about succession in the wealthy Southeast Asian city state - which has been governed by the People's Action Party since independence in 1965 - came into focus when Lee, who has twice survived cancer, took ill during a televised speech last year and stumbled at a podium.

Doctors subsequently said there were no serious concerns.

DISPUTE "IN ABEYANCE"

Lee Kuan Yew's successor, Goh Chok Tong, was identified at least five years in advance while the current leader, who first entered politics in 1984, was also groomed for the position long before he took office in 2004.

Prime Minister Lee said he was saddened by a feud with his siblings which played out in the public earlier this year over the fate of Lee Kuan Yew's family home.

"The matter is in abeyance. I'm not sure if it's solved," Lee said in the CNBC interview, adding he and his siblings had not recently communicated.

Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling accused their elder brother of abusing state power to try to save the house as a historic monument in defiance of his father's wishes.

The prime minister called for an extraordinary special sitting of parliament in July and subsequently said that debate failed to find any substantiated evidence of abuse of power. He has said the government must decide what to do with the property.

"Perhaps one day when emotions have subsided, some movement will be possible. These things take time," Lee said.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Martin Howell)

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