: THERE is a sad irony that the latest attack on the credibility of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) should have been mounted in Hong Kong, even if it did come from that redoubtable Malaysian minister, Rafidah Aziz. As the most open of traders in the region, the territory's businessmen and politicians obviously have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the free-trade ideals represented by APEC, and set out in the Bogor Declaration. Those attending the seminar on investment opportunities in Malaysian at which Ms Rafidah was speaking were offered a warm welcome - to some - but one which might well have strings, such as compulsory partnerships. Such barriers are anathema to Hong Kong, but like them or not, Ms Rafidah's sentiments on APEC's problems this time went further than a restatement of the well-known Malaysian scepticism on the whole project. The vision of a smooth path to seamless trading around the 18 Pacific Rim members of APEC before the first quarter of the next century had passed has indeed been clouded by the inability of officials to persuade Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea that they had to sacrifice their special interests in agriculture to the greater good of the 'open regionalism,' propounded by APEC's supporters. It is too early to write off next month's Osaka meeting - there might be potholes ahead, but that does not mean that the road is closed, and Bogor showed that there was a solid phalanx of nations which genuinely believe in more open trade. If the will is still there, then progress towards the goal will certainly be made - to the general benefit of the whole region, but it has to be recognised that as realities emerge, hard deadlines may well come under pressure. That does not mean that the APEC blueprint should be consigned to the dustbin. As Ms Rafidah points out, it took many years of hard negotiating to get the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in place, and even now it has bits missing. APEC, too, might never quite measure up to the aspirations of its architects, but that does not mean it does not have a major contribution to make. There must be, however, determination to keep moving forward, otherwise we can say hello to another expensive talking shop.