United we stand was the motto of Asian leaders throughout the summer currency crisis. The apotheosis of that spirit is a planned US$100 billion regional bailout fund. Unfortunately, the impression of good money thrown after bad is hard to avoid. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in damage limitation mode yesterday, talked of multilateral Asian solutions to currency speculation. As Malaysia attempts to inflate away stockmarket blues it may yet be an early supplicant. United States Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin wants to meet regional officials to discuss the go-it-alone plan. Both the International Monetary Fund and US seem deeply uneasy - when it comes to bailouts, Asia has been the region that hates to say no. Herein lies the danger. Already, officials talk of keeping the IMF off the ticket. An Asian-managed fund would presumably have softer lending criteria than the dreaded 'conditionality' imposed by the guardians of economic orthodoxy. Japan will inevitably be the largest donor. With Asian countries funding the US$17 billion Thailand bailout the sight of lecturing white European males rankles many in the region. He who pays the piper, so to say. Asian governments have eschewed criticism of their neighbours' policy responses. Even while Malaysia's erratic reaction exacerbated the contagion, not a whisper of criticism was forthcoming from Indonesia, the Philippines or other countries. Inter-governmental harmony is clearly better than discord, but offers a weak basis for imposing tough economic medicine on other countries. The heart of the matter is a regional willingness for quick-fix solutions through bailout funds. Japan, Korea and Malaysia all have attempted to buck the market rather than face hard economic reality - the same approach at the macro-economic level would presage economic disaster. As the dominant lender, Japan would call the shots. Yet, its relationship with Southeast Asia is clouded by wartime antecedents. Those sensitivities make it hard to imagine Tokyo imposing IMF-type lending criteria on needy claimants. The risk must be that lending conditionality is lost to wider political objectives. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations operates along non-mandatory lines and its leaders have not proved a willingness to sacrifice national interest for the regional good. The prospect of a black hole opening up where tens of billions of dollars are wasted seems very real. This IMF-World Bank conference has produced a level of controversy not seen for years. Yesterday the IMF ruled out anti-currency speculation measures even while Mr Anwar said such approaches would be sought. Yet the idea of a united Asian front is misleading. China has ruled itself out of offering direct assistance. Even while the Hong Kong Monetary Authority champions expanded regional monetary compensation promises of direct funding are vague. Singapore, long reticent about repurchase agreements, is unlikely to commit funds carte blanche. Japan sees an opportunity to expand its regional influence, while enthusiasts like Malaysia have an interest in securing future support on the least painful terms. Given limited institutional mechanisms for imposing lending criteria, enforcement will be key. National self-interest has bubbled beneath the surface until now. It is to be hoped that a little selfishness asserts itself before costly decisions are made. Potentially slower growth and fierce export competition makes an unhealthy backdrop for regional taxpayers to be supporting other people's mismanaged economies. Asian money solving Asian problems may seem inherently attractive. But until awareness of underlying economic problems grows, lenders are taking a huge chance. It is human nature to want an accommodating banker in time of financial distress. In the longer term a streak of IMF style meanness would serve the region far better.