Shaken and Stirred: Interview with author Devadas Krishnadas

Year: 2020

Interview by Cheong Suk-Wai for the Straits Times, on 27 November 2016


The Seduction of the Simple: Insights on Singapore’s Future Directions

By Devadas Krishnadas

Singapore has embraced the nickname Little Red Dot, but Singaporean author and businessman Devadas Krishnadas sees it more as Test Tube Country.

As Devadas, 43, notes in his third and latest book, The Seduction Of The Simple, the city-state has shaken itself up – as one would a test tube – every 10 years or so since Independence in 1965 and, as he puts it, fixed “the chemicals of our identity, infrastructure and strategies for the future”.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, he says: “We need to continue to have the courage and ability to absorb the discomfort from doing that.”

Also, he stresses, there cannot be any let-up in such shaking.

“You have to do so furiously and forever. That is our fate.”

That is one of his consistent messages in The Seduction Of The Simple, a compilation of 71 of his essays and commentaries since 2012. Seventeen of them ran in The Straits Times. Most of his musings in the book are from his Facebook postings.

The book gets its title from his commentary in The Straits Times on March 4, in which he singled out United States President-elect Donald Trump and his predecessor and Iraq warmonger George W. Bush for “simple understanding, simple explanations, simple solutions, simple assurances simply made. This holds tremendous appeal to those who have a fear of uncertainty, are themselves ignorant, are prone to believe that someone other than they (sic) are to blame for their lack of achievement”.

That is Devadas’ take on populism which, fuelled by widespread anger among those on the wrong side of the income gap, is now sweeping oft-irresponsible politicians to power in many countries.

This succinct, measured and incisive book, then, is an antidote to such a tsunami of simplistic thinking. Devadas’ main skein is that everyone should demand of himself and others, higher standards in all spheres of life and that everyone owes it to himself to get “interested, informed and involved”.

Doing things purposefully, after all, he points out, is “living rich, as opposed to being rich”.

To stand up and be counted like that, he stresses, is now a must, chiefly because the future will be “a story of trade-offs” in which, more than ever, the smartest, fittest and fastest will benefit most.

All, however, is not lost.

“What is important to appreciate is that the level of opportunity will stay relatively even and that’s what the Government should try and concentrate on, rather than focus on guaranteed outcomes.”

The range of his views in this book – from slowing economic growth to reviewing the CPF scheme to the insidious notion of tolerance – is as varied as his career, which saw him starting out as a policeman in 1997, switching to policy-making after 10 years, and from 2012, running his strategic planning consultancy Future- Moves Group and writing commentaries for publication on- and offline.

Even so, he writes only when he can proffer solutions. “I like to bring something to the table… whether those are taken up, I don’t know, because I am not active in political or policy circles. I don’t write to persuade people to take my view. I’m trying to persuade people to take a view, based on fact.”


Five Questions This Book Answers

1. How might the relationship between the Government and the people evolve?

2. Which new frontiers should Singaporeans explore to their advantage?

3. In what ways should everyone invest in his or her future?

4. What bitter pills might Singaporeans have to swallow from now on?

5. What gaps should Singaporeans mind in guarding against terrorist attacks?


Just A Minute

The Good

1. Former policeman, fiscal policy-maker, strategic planner and businessman Devadas Krishnadas has a rare vantage point on Singapore affairs, thanks to his experience with the many facets of what makes Singapore as a nation gleam. So in this compilation of his 71 essays, he lays on a buffet of tantalising bites – and they are merely bites, as each essay is 1,200 words or fewer – on the state of Singapore today. Little of it makes it easy to swallow, though, as he is one for hard nuggets of truth which are seldom thought out loud. Here, for example, is his caution on racial harmony, Singapore- style: “Tolerance is a condition where various ethnicities or religions may either have a weak understanding of one another or actively dislike and yet mutually agree to put up with one another. Often, this tolerance is both superficial and limited to public arenas… We must be intolerant of the casual slights, the majority privilege, the easy stereotyping of races… The Singapore tribe is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.”

2. He is a fine writer with an unforced, unshowy way with words, largely because he is a clear thinker. He is balanced in his approach to any issue, which goes a long way towards bolstering his advocacy for responsible commentary, especially in social media.

3. The author bundles his commentaries in mainstream media with many of his online postings. So this book is a quick study of the differences and nuances in how a commentator angles his views for different platforms.

The Bad

1. There is sloppy editing and proofreading, especially in the book’s first few pages. The word “honorary” is spelt “honourary”, words are missing from sentences or inserted where they do not belong. These irks mar what is otherwise an erudite, and important, read. Also, tighter editing might have shorn the 71 essays down to, say, 50 and made the read less diffused and less repetitive overall.

The Iffy

1. The book is strong on assertions, but quite light on facts. Asked about this, Devadas says he wants to “stimulate the reader’s appetite” to go in search of more facts in the matter. Readers are rarely enthused enough by any one commentary to dig deeper.


Fact File: Learning From Great Men

As an assistant superintendent of police in his late 20s, Devadas Krishnadas was chuffed whenever his colleague assigned him to attend to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Devadas, who is now 43, was the honorary aide-de-camp to President S R Nathan from 2001 to 2003. His duties sometimes included assisting Mr Lee, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He recalls with a chuckle: “For a long while, my ego felt that this must be because I was an exceptional officer. One day, I asked my colleague, ‘Why do you always call me?'”

Sensing, perhaps, that he was getting a bit big for his boots, she replied: “You’re the only one stupid enough to say yes.”

The former cop, who was once a civil servant and is now a businessman, is as soft-spoken as he is self-deprecating.

Married with one child, he says he learnt a lot from Mr Lee Kuan Yew by “keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open”.

He recalls: “The indelible impression I had of him was his dedication to the country. Everything was for Singapore. A second thing was his economy of language; he never wasted a word.

“He was himself all the time. He didn’t have to pull himself up straight because he was always up straight… he didn’t need to say anything for you to know that you were in the presence of someone extra- ordinary.”

Devadas joined the Singapore Police Force in 1997, right after graduating in history from the University of Sydney. He later won a Fulbright scholarship to study public policy at the Fletcher School in Boston, after which he was made a commanding officer and head of operations in the force.

But why policing? He says he was “inspired” by his father N.K. Das’ 56 years of service to Singapore in the Inland Revenue authority.

“He started out under Empire, proceeded to Federation and then helped a newly sovereign Singapore develop its capabilities in a time when you had to get a lot done with very little,” Devadas muses.

“And there wasn’t any point jumping up and down, screaming for resources because manna was not falling from heaven.”

His mother, Mrs Kamala Das, is a housewife and an active grassroots leader in the Changkat Changi ward.

Still, after what he calls “an intense 10 years” with the police force, he left it for the civil service and wound up working closely in the Ministry of Finance with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Those years, he says, shaped how, why and what he writes today.

Asked what it was like being an influential policy-maker there, he says: “My father used to say, ‘Never confuse yourself with your chair… once you leave, you don’t have that chair anymore. You may not even have a stool.'”

In 2012, after 15 years in public service, he left it to set up his own strategic planning consultancy, the Future-Moves Group, which now has about 10 people and counts among its clients the Pioneer Generation Office, Spring Singapore and the government of Rwanda.

His office is in Paya Lebar, which is set to be one of Singapore’s major regional commercial hubs. In fact, he helped shape it as the Finance Ministry’s head of whole-of-government strategic planning.

In growing Future-Moves, he says he has made mistakes about risk and people.

Then again, he adds: “I learnt to make decisions in the police service and those decisions were life and death.

“These are decisions about dollars and cents. On a relative basis, there is no comparison, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you because it does affect the lives of the people in your company and your clients.”


The Seduction of the Simple: Insights on Singapore’s Future Directions

Marshall Cavendish Editions, Paperback/284 pages/$29.96 with GST from leading bookstores


Devadas Krishnadas served two and a half years in the Singapore Infantry and ten years as a Senior Police Officer, including as a Commanding Officer and a Head of Operations. He served for three years as Honourary Aide-de-Camp to the President of Singapore (the then President S.R. Nathan). He also served five years in public policy in multiple Ministries including the Ministry of Finance. In 2012, he founded and has since led, a boutique consultancy, focused on public policy and corporate strategy.