IN A PREVIOUS incarnation as a columnist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, I wrote regularly on Asean's triumphs and tribulations. And so, when I recently saw Rodolfo Severino, the secretary-general of Asean for the past five years, it was like seeing an old friend again. He has almost come to the end of his five-year stint in charge, and I also knew his predecessor, the retired Malaysian diplomat, Ajit Singh, Asean's first secretary-general. It was not made clear to Mr Singh when he assumed his post that the appointment was not renewable and, when his term came to an end, he was distressed to learn he would not get a second one. The respective governments involved had decided, without bothering to inform him, that the post would be rotated among Asean's member states. Mr Severino is from the Philippines. His successor in January will be a Singaporean, Ong Keng Yong, presently the prime minister's spokesman. In the early and mid-1990s, Asean was in its heyday and was held up as a model regional organisation. But ever since the Asian financial crisis swept through the region in 1997, Asean's fortunes have waned and interest has fallen, a fact reflected by the substantial drop in foreign direct investment. Moreover, ever since the departure of Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, Asean has lacked a forceful and high-profile advocate. Economic integration However, to its credit, Asean has continued to work at regional economic integration and has been pretty successful in reducing tariffs on intra-Asean trade. Afta, the Asean Free Trade Area, will come into full effect on January 1 next year. 'We have reached the point where we have to decide on the next step for regional integration,' Mr Severino said. 'Asean needs to do much more, such as removing non-tariff barriers, adopting common standards, mutually recognising product tests, liberalising trade in services such as transport, communications, financial services, tourism and the like, removing obstacles to the physical transport of goods, co-ordinating customs procedures, aligning certain policies and regulations, and so on.' At the same time, Asean needs to meet the challenge of big, integrated economies in North America and Europe. 'Asean will have to do some thinking about its future goals,' he said. 'A Customs union? A common market? A single market?' Asean does not have to wait until its 10 member economies are fully integrated before beginning to integrate with some outside economies, such as those of China, Japan and South Korea, he said. China is expected to sign an agreement with Asean in Phnom Penh early next month on a free-trade area. That accord, he said, would not just be a declaration of intent but would be fairly detailed. This was very rapid progress, he said, considering that only four rounds of talks have been held. Agricultural issues Japan, too, wants closer relations with Asean in something called a comprehensive economic partnership, which could include elements of a free-trade agreement, although Tokyo is sensitive to agriculture issues. There are many things to consider. For example, the United States-Asean Business Council has proposed a US-Asean free-trade area. But, Mr Severino said: 'Who's going to think through these things? We need people to manage the process, in the secretariat and in the member states. There's just nobody to attend to it.' For that reason, he said, 'we're asking for a stronger secretariat to handle Asean-plus-three issues and external economic relations in general. Resources are also strained, for example, by Asean's exploration of how economic relations with India could be broadened'. Asean's resources are limited and some of its members - particularly the new ones - may find it difficult to make additional contributions. According to Mr Severino, foreign investors need to see the region as one market. 'They are less interested in investing in just one country,' he said. 'But if the whole area was one market, it would be huge, with half the population of China.' Will Asean develop a common currency, like the euro? 'There are many advantages to a common currency, but you have to give up lots of autonomy, giving a regional central bank the authority to devise fiscal and monetary policy,' he said. 'We're not at that stage yet. However, intermediate steps, such as co-ordinating exchanges rates, are being taken.' Asean, he said, 'will never be one country, not even like the European Union'.