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.
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Security Conference on Monday, he said: "We also need courageous leaders who do not succumb to domestic pressures or nationalistic pursuits against the greater good of the region, including to right historical wrongs and perceived wrongs when the conditions are still premature."
These leaders must not succumb to the notion that "might is right...The mark of a powerful country is not how it is able to use its might to get its way. The mark of a truly powerful country is 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."
Mr Chan's comments come amid a diplomatic row between Singapore and Indonesia, following Jakarta's recent decision to name a navy ship after two Indonesian marines who bombed the MacDonald House here in 1965 that left three people dead and 33 hurt.
The move triggered Singapore's Cabinet ministers to voice their objections last week. Last Sunday, top Indonesian military and defence officials, including Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin and Armed Forces (TNI) chief Moeldoko, said they would skip the Singapore Airshow, which starts on Tuesday. Indonesian navy chief Marsetio and 100 TNI officers were also told that that their invitations to the six-day event had been cancelled.
Although Mr Chan did not refer to Jakarta or the ongoing spat, he said countries are likely to be more assertive in defending strategic interests, amid the increasing economic stakes.
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".
At the security forum marked by the absence of Indonesian delegates, Mr Chan suggested that defence and security professionals back political efforts with practical military cooperation to build trust and work towards common goals. "Military professionals, more than politicians, have the opportunity to grow up, train together, and bond to build deep trust."
Mr Chan noted previous occasions where "political channels may have stopped but military channels continue to be open and this has provided an alternative channel to calm things".
"On the other hand, we have also seen situations where poor military links exacerbate the political tensions, leading to unfortunate outcomes. We have also seen poor military professionalism causing unwanted incidents that then lock political masters into positions that they cannot back down, causing already tricky situations to spiral out of control."
To steer away from conflict, he urged the military and defence community to "interact boldly, dialogue openly, network assiduously and train together professionally".