PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 12:00am

WHEN I THREW OUT a gratuitous barbed comment in this column last week about the Trade Development Council (TDC) having 'rag and clock exports on the brain' I just knew I would get it shot right back at me by Sarah Monks.

I knew it because she had warned me she would if I tried it on. Like Rip Van Winkle, I seem to have nodded off for a few years in my knowledge of what the TDC does, she wrote in a letter to the editor (Council does promote service exports, March 16). The letters editor took that Rip Van Winkle bit out, unfortunately.

I am not usually one to lose sleep about what my targets may shoot back at me but Sarah is different, not specifically because she is director of corporate communications at the TDC but because she was the news editor of the South China Morning Post when I first put in a brief stint back in pre-history.

Journalism, in case you did not know, is an occupation for lazy people but no one who worked for Sarah ever got a chance to prove it true. A news editor like that is very much like a good teacher. You know how it is. Even when that teacher has your children rather than you in her class you still sit upright in your chair when seeing her and say, 'Yes, Miss Jones, no, Miss Jones'. So having a go at Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is one thing but when it is my old news editor on the subject of whether the TDC has taken proper account of the Hong Kong economy's shift to services, I feel a particular compulsion to make sure of my ground first.

I think I have.

Let us get it straight immediately that I do not think the TDC's emphasis on merchandise exports is for want of trying to adapt itself to service exports. The difficulty is one of opportunity rather than intent. There is simply much less for it to do in services. It is not like the days of putting clock-makers who had never set foot outside Hong Kong in touch with potential foreign buyers of those clocks.

What, for instance, can anyone who is not a career shipping man tell Maersk Sealand about cargo availability in Hong Kong? The core of this business is already people getting in touch with each other around the world and it accounts for about 36 per cent of our service exports.

The next most important category is loosely defined 'trade related'. Same thing goes here. This is not about making things and asking the TDC for help in finding buyers. The business is itself about matching buyers and sellers and what role is there then for the TDC to help people who are already consummate professionals in the field? There may be a small one but let us put the emphasis on 'small'.

Then we get travel and tourism, not the TDC's patch. This job is handled by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. We are now left with barely 15 per cent of total service exports, mostly financial services and insurance, but, once again, bankers and insurance brokers are already masters of their trades and a banker in London who wants to know more about trade finance in Hong Kong speaks to his Hong Kong office, not the TDC.

So it does not cut a great deal of ice with me to be told that the TDC will organise more than 90 missions and events around the world this year to promote our service exports. I do not question its willingness to work hard. I just think it should ask itself whether there are really any sails up there before it blows wind into them.

There is no doubting the TDC has always done an admirable job of promoting Hong Kong-made goods around the world. It was for many years our de facto foreign affairs ministry.

But times change and institutions ought to evolve. We are past the days of rags and clocks. It is time for the TDC to accept that it now has a smaller role to play.