PM Lee Hsien Loong, Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte speak of strong ties between Singapore and the Netherlands

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore on Nov 24, 2016.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore on Nov 24, 2016. PHOTO: EPA
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (center) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong inspecting honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Istana Presidential Palace on Nov 24,
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (center) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong inspecting honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Istana Presidential Palace on Nov 24, PHOTO: EPA
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a welcome ceremony at the Istana Presidential Palace on Nov 24, 2016. Mr Rutte is on a state visit to reaffirm ties between the two countries.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a welcome ceremony at the Istana Presidential Palace on Nov 24, 2016. Mr Rutte is on a state visit to reaffirm ties between the two countries. PHOTO: EPA
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) and President Tony Tan Keng Yam shake hands at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore on Nov 24, 2016.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) and President Tony Tan Keng Yam shake hands at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore on Nov 24, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Singapore - Winsemius, water and win-win. Those are three words which tell the story of how the relationship between Singapore and the Netherlands has been built, visiting Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said here on Thursday (Nov 24).

Dutch economist Albert Winsemius was instrumental to Singapore's growth in its early years, as the Government's chief economic adviser from 1961 to 1984.

When former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, Mr Winsemius' children Ankie and Pieter attended his funeral service as private guests of the Lee family, showing how the diplomatic relationship also had a very personal dimension.

Both Singapore and the Netherlands also cooperate in water management - whether on the issue of water scarcity for Singapore, or floods in the Netherlands - and have turned water from being a foe into a friend, Mr Rutte said during a toast at the Istana during an official lunch hosted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And both countries have a win-win partnership with each other, added Mr Rutte, who is in Singapore on a one-day official visit.

Dutch companies are also keen to cooperate further in innovation and research, and to work to come up with fresh solutions to global challenges like climate change.

"It is not just a necessity, but with a good friend like Singapore, it is also a pleasure," he said.

PM Lee too had warm words for the Netherlands, highlighting historical ties between the two countries. Both also work closely in many areas including business, education, defence and the environment, and have strong economic ties.

The Netherlands is Singapore's largest European investor, having invested close to S$70 billion in Singapore.

It is also Singapore's third-largest trading partner in the European Union. About 1,300 Dutch companies operate in Singapore.

PM Lee noted that both countries have the same ethos and perspective: "We are both tolerant and egalitarian societies. Our people are open and direct. We share outward-looking perspectives. We want to promote freer trade and international cooperation."

He added: "At a time when many countries are turning inwards and seeking to repudiate globalisation and shut out the world, we believe that staying open and ahead of changes is the right strategy."

Earlier, Mr Rutte told The Straits Times in an interview that he and Mr Lee had the same agenda and belief in having open economic borders.

The strategy he saw for smaller countries, he said, was "to constantly press home the message that we cannot have a world without free trade. That is the only way to have growth in the long term, for everyone."

As for the United States' diminished appetite for free trade and its incoming president Donald Trump who campaigned on an anti-trade pact platform, Mr Rutte said it was still early days: "We have heard what Trump said during the election campaign, but now we have to see what President Trump will do once he's in office."

Mr Trump this week said that on his first day in office, he intends to initiate executive action to withdraw from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, preferring to negotiate bilateral agreements instead.

On Thursday, Mr Rutte noted that while Mr Trump has been consistent in his opposition to the TPP, he has softened his stance on the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - going from wanting to jettison the entire agreement, to wanting to change it.

There is still room for Mr Trump to change his mind, and this is where smaller countries can play a part.

"What we need to do, and this is something Prime Minister Lee can do, what I can do, is to engage with him. Make sure to get on his schedule. We talk with him, and we have to be very clear what it means to the US ... in terms of prosperity, to be part of a global community based on free trade," Mr Rutte said.

"I'm sure that collectively, we can at least influence the decision-making. We should not just wait for what happens."

Earlier in the day, Mr Rutte called on President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the Istana and also had an orchid named after him at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a traditional honour for visiting foreign leaders.