Keep pushing for free trade: Dutch PM

But deals must be transparent and cultivate inclusive growth, he says ahead of S'pore visit

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who arrives in Singapore today for an official visit, has called on countries that champion free trade to keep pushing for it and ensure that trade agreements foster inclusive growth.

Mr Rutte also said that negotiations of such pacts and their terms need to be transparent.

In addition, there must be dialogue with people on the gains and pains of globalisation, he said in an interview with The Straits Times ahead of his first visit to Singapore since he took office in 2010.

"We have to keep explaining why free trade is a good thing, especially for open economies like those of the Netherlands and Singapore."

But in doing so, these economies need to address concerns about globalisation seriously, he said.

The two prongs of this approach go hand in hand.

The one-day visit to Singapore reaffirms the good and longstanding ties between the two countries, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

The Netherlands was Singapore's third-largest trading partner in the European Union last year, with bilateral trade totalling $14.2 billion. The Netherlands is also Singapore's largest investor from Europe.

Both countries also cooperate in areas such as research and innovation, water management, transport and urban infrastructure.

During his visit, Mr Rutte will give the 39th Singapore Lecture on the common future shared by Singapore and the Netherlands, Europe and South-east Asia, and the world.

This internationalist approach was evident in Mr Rutte's interview, made more stark by the rising anti-globalisation sentiments in Europe and the United States.

He said Singapore and the Netherlands have similar economic thinking and geographical position in their regions.

The Netherlands, with a population of 16.7 million, is dwarfed by its neighbours France and Germany, and has four to five times fewer people than them.

His country, trying to go green and having more environmentally sustainable business practices, can cooperate more with Singapore in some areas, said Mr Rutte.

These include promoting electric vehicles and cycling to reduce carbon emissions, developing green buildings and managing ports.

Mr Rutte will attend several business-related events to promote collaboration between Singapore and Dutch companies.

There are 1,300 Dutch companies in Singapore, and about 70 Singapore companies in the Netherlands.

There is room for more investment, particularly in innovation sectors, he said. For instance, investors are keen on financial technology, cyber security, autonomous driving and water management.

"We share the same no-nonsense, innovation-focused approach to doing business," he said.

"So it's hardly surprising that our countries are among the five most competitive economies in the world," he said, citing the World Economic Forum's latest annual report, which named Singapore the second-most competitive economy and the Netherlands the fourth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Keep pushing for free trade: Dutch PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe