Countries need wise and strong leaders who appreciate that there is more to gain through cooperation than conflict, said Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing.
These leaders should also have the courage not to succumb to domestic pressures fuelled by nationalist sentiments at the expense of regional peace, or hold the notion that "might is right".
To steer away from conflict, Mr Chan urged military and defence professionals to back political efforts by cooperating with their partners "to build trust and work towards common goals".
Mr Chan was addressing more than 280 military officials and defence analysts at the Asia-Pacific Security Conference yesterday, ahead of the Singapore Airshow which starts today.
Amid increasing economic stakes and a growing contest of resources, countries are likely to be more assertive in defending their strategic interests. Growing nationalism in some countries has intensified "historical animosities", said Mr Chan, "which in turn increases the pressure on governments to be seen defending these interests and redressing historical wrongs".
For these countries, foreign policy can become a convenient tool to shift attention away from domestic issues, which can lead to heightened tensions.
Hence, there is a need for "courageous leaders" who do not cave in to domestic pressures against the greater good of the region, "including to right historical wrongs and perceived wrongs when the conditions are still premature".
Mr Chan's comments come amid a diplomatic row between Singapore and Indonesia, following Jakarta's decision to name a navy ship after two Indonesian marines who bombed MacDonald House here in 1965, which left three people dead and 33 hurt.
This move led to five Singapore Cabinet ministers voicing their objections.
On Sunday, top Indonesian military and defence officials, including Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief, decided to skip the air show. Indonesian navy chief Marsetio and 100 TNI officers were also told that their invitations to the event had been cancelled. The Indonesians, a regular fixture at security forums here, were conspicuously absent at yesterday's event.
Although Mr Chan did not refer to Jakarta or the bilateral row, he said the mark of a truly powerful country is not how it is able to use its might to get its way but "how it is able to restrain itself and not have to use its might to get its way and yet convince others to come along its side".
In instances of a failure to resolve differences through political means, there have been occasions in the past where military channels continued to be open and helped calm things, said Mr Chan.
He cautioned that poor military links can stoke tensions, leading to political tangles. "We have also seen poor military professionalism causing unwanted incidents that then lock political masters into positions that they cannot back down (from), causing already tricky situations to spiral out of control."
To steer away from such conflicts, he urged the military and defence community to "interact boldly, dialogue openly, network assiduously and train together professionally".
Yesterday's security conference also touched on the United States' efforts to shift its focus to Asia, which has been seen as an attempt to counter-balance a rising China. Security experts also voiced concerns about recent actions by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which have provoked China.
Among them was his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including 14 war criminals.
Chinese foreign policy expert Ruan Zongze said the moves demonstrate that Mr Abe is "trying to revise the Japanese course in the future, which will complicate issues in North-east Asia".