SINGAPORE - Talent will play an increasingly important part in directing Singapore's next phase of growth to become an innovation-driven economy, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Friday (May 4).

In his first public remarks since he assumed the post on Tuesday, Mr Chan highlighted the importance of improving the quality of the workforce, as trade associations, companies and the Government implement the various Industry Transformation Maps - strategic plans tailored for industries to address specific issues.

"Beyond connectivity and a pro-business environment, another key criterion for our continued success is being open to talent," he told 150 government officials and business leaders at a lunch organised by the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham) at the St Regis Hotel.

Maintaining a strong Singaporean core through programmes such as SkillsFuture, which helps Singaporeans upgrade and reskill, goes in tandem with remaining open to talent worldwide, he said.

"Foreign labour complements Singaporean workers and brings along relevant skills to create new industries and job opportunities," he said.

"This is crucial to our longer-term competitiveness, and ensures that we stay relevant to a dynamic region that is fast evolving and growing."

Mr Chan also emphasised the importance of connectivity, as well as a pro-business environment.

The Lion City has implemented 22 free trade agreements with 33 trading partners to date, he said, and will continue to be an air and sea hub for passengers and goods, as well as work on new dimensions of connectivity such as data and finance.

"We see the world as our hinterland, and doing so has allowed us to transcend our physical constraints and avoid being circumscribed by geography," he said.

Singapore has also pursued pro-business policies such as robust intellectual property protections, which provide certainty to businesses and foster innovation, he added.

More than 10,000 European Union companies are in Singapore today, making the trade bloc the nation's largest investor, he said. Some have cooperated with local companies, for example, the Netherlands' Shell has partnered local clean energy provider Sunseap to collaborate on solar projects.

Unlike other countries or regions which may be taking a more protectionist approach, both the EU and Singapore are "firm believers" in open trade.

Mr Chan cited the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, a pact which would lower tariffs and other barriers to trade and enhance protection of intellectual property rights, among other things.

It is currently awaiting ratification but Mr Chan noted that the deal is "a pathfinder towards an eventual EU-Asean FTA and anchors the EU's engagement in the region".

Ratifying the agreement between the EU and Singapore would also send a "powerful signal" to the rest of the world about the importance of free trade despite increasingly protectionist measures from other economies, he said.

Singapore is the Asean chairman this year, and it aims to strengthen the relationship between both blocs, Mr Chan said. Asean is the EU's third-largest trading partner outside Europe, after the US and China, with Singapore accounting for about one-third of the EU's total trade with the region, he noted.

The lunch was to celebrate the Schuman Declaration made 68 years ago. The declaration led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community - the foundation of the 28-member European Union, which is the world's largest trading bloc and its second-largest economy.