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Emphasis in Singapore's urban renewal shifts from demolition to quality of life

S. Rajaratnam summed up the process of urban renewal in Singapore in one word: vandalism. Opening a recent seminar on adaptive rehabilitation of old buildings, the second deputy prime minister assailed demolition of old parts of the city without regard to history and culture.

He named speculators and developers as the culprits, aided by a ''government and bureaucracy which believes that anything that cannot be transplanted into cold cash is not worth investing in.''

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His views struck a responsive chord in many Singaporeans, who are suddenly re-examining their roots and want parts of the old city recycled rather than demolished.

As the demolition crews drive on amid daily clouds of gritty dust there is a dawning realization that in a short time Singapore could have very few buildings that predate its independence 25 years ago.

The city planners have created a clean, efficient city that functions well in its prime role as an economic machine. But does it have any soul? This is the subject of increasing public debate.

Much of the debate centers on Chinatown, a mere ghost of the old bustling quarter.

The old teeming slums have been erased, the occupants moved out to sprawling estates of look-alike apartment blocks.

To the Urban Redevelopment Authority, this is a major achievement.

''Preservation has been an important part of renewal, but we have to consider Singapore's limited land resources. We cannot retain the old parts of the city simply because they are old,'' says URA chairman Koh Cher Siang.

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But Culture and Foreign Affairs Minister S. Dhanabalan is trenchant in debunking much of the nostalgia movement.

''It is fashionable . . . to decry mass high-rise housing as soulless, colorless, and sterile compared to the slums they replace,'' he said in a recent speech.

''Tourists who love to gawk at the poverty and filth of the natives are also disappointed.''

But with the redevelopment program now drawing to a close, the emphasis is slowly switching to improving the quality of life, including preservation of old buildings and creation of more public recreational areas, government officials stress.

For the Central Business District fronting the sea, teeming with life in the daytime but silent at night, a plan is under consideration to create a residential area on reclaimed land.

Another project calls for pockets of greenery stretching several miles from Orchard Road down to the business district to be linked to provide a pleasant traffic-free environment for evening promenaders and joggers.

The body in charge of preserving historic buildings will be given stronger powers. Restoration of at least some remnants of Chinatown will be given greater priority. But much of this will have the wait for the dust to settle from the current gouging out of an island-wide subway system.

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