Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said Singapore has to show it has a "strong deterrent force" in handling bilateral tensions, such as with Malaysia, stressing that national service and realistic military training are vital in achieving this.
He was responding yesterday during an Institute of Policy Studies conference to an audience member, who asked about accountability in the light of the recent death of actor Aloysius Pang after he had an accident during training in New Zealand.
Ms Angie Chew had raised concerns about the ongoing disputes with Malaysia over maritime boundaries and airspace, "because our young men are put on alert whenever the governments are arguing". She also asked about transparency and accountability "when lives of our young men (are) being put at risk not for war, but at practice".
Mr Kausikan said "there is no substitute for deterrence, given the environment we live in".
"Where there are tensions, with Malaysia in particular, we need to demonstrate that there is a limit beyond which they should not go. They know this very well," he said.
"If we don't demonstrate that from time to time, and that demonstration in turn depends on the broader context for having a strong deterrent force, things are more likely to get out of hand," he added.
On concerns over training safety, Mr Kausikan said standards have been raised over the years and are taken very seriously, but accidents can still happen despite precautions being taken.
He noted that the Defence Ministry has not been "untransparent" in handling training accidents, and that the Committee of Inquiry will make its findings public.
During the 90-minute session on Singapore and the region, Mr Kausikan and former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa spoke on a range of topics from the rivalry between the US and China for dominance and influence to Asean's response to protect the region's security and prosperity.
Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, who moderated the panel, asked about Asean's role in mitigating conflicts like the dispute between Singapore and Malaysia.
Mr Kausikan said the regional bloc has not resolved bilateral disputes and is unlikely to play more than a general role as it is essentially a collection of sovereign states and "can do no more than its members agree by consensus".
Describing the issues as "old" and their substance as "ridiculous", he attributed them to the "incoherence" of the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition led by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
This "is not going away", he said. "It's a time-tested tactic of Malaysia over many years and many governments that when their politics get incoherent as they are now, we are a useful rallying point, particularly for leaders to rally their Malay ground."