THERE IS A creeping sense of deja vu across Asia that we are somehow back in the future - the 1997 financial crisis to be precise. The causes and specifics may be different but the sense of building panic is oddly familiar. According to currency dealers in Kuala Lumpur, wealthy Indonesians have been exchanging their rupiahs for the greenback on concern that authorities were not doing enough to stop their currency's slide. With the rupiah hitting a three-year low, Indonesian officials had to go to the extent of reminding state-owned companies that they are under obligation to park their export earnings in the country's banks. In a recent note to its clients, ING Group advised them to steer clear of the Indonesian markets as the rupiah's slide amid official helplessness reminded them of events that preceded Asia's financial crisis in 1997 and 1998. The first red flag was probably Thailand's decision late last year to switch off billboards by midnight and impose a 10pm-5am curfew on petrol stations. Early this month, the Philippine president warned of petrol rationing. And this week, the Indonesian leader - who has been praised for his calm and steady ways - had to take the rather unusual step of reassuring a jittery market amid a plunging rupiah and eroding forex reserves. On August 9, the Indonesian central bank raised its benchmark interest rate from 8.5 per cent to 8.75 per cent to defend the rupiah and cap inflation. Analysts, however, believe that the increase was too little, too late. Whatever and wherever the signs, something is seriously askew in Asia. With oil prices hurtling to record levels, countries like the Philippines and Thailand saw their trade balances tumble into ever heavier deficits. In Manila, the government is expected to lower its GDP growth forecast from 5.3 per cent this year to 5.1 per cent. As stubbornly high oil prices threaten exports and domestic consumption, one could almost hear economists clicking on their spreadsheets to downgrade their GDP and currency forecasts for the region's vulnerable economies. Most economic forecasts for the region have assumed oil prices at US$50-US$60 per barrel while the Nymex futures contract for March has already hit US$70 on Wednesday. Yesterday, UBS and CSFB cut their forecasts for the rupiah although they maintained their views on the baht and Philippine peso. The two banks now expect the rupiah to hit 10,400 per US dollar in a month from its previous forecast of 9,900. If you ask the region's leaders, it wasn't supposed to be like this. In November last year, energy ministers from Asean, China, Japan and South Korea agreed to co-operate on securing oil supply and building regional oil stockpiles as crude prices started to creep up towards US$55. But like the world's oil supply, the officials' resolve seemed to have fizzled as concerns were appeased by crude prices falling to about US$40 early this year. And now prices are dangerously close to US$70 and the region is starting to panic. Hopefully, given the virtues of a free market, high oil prices will force companies and the public to slash oil consumption, conserve energy and shift to alternative sources. The opening of Central Asian oil supplies may also help Asia wean itself from overdependence on Middle Eastern oil. And stop-and-go efforts to tap into Asia's vast natural gas reserves may soon pay off. Unfortunately, these are long-term hopes. For Asians, the immediate prospects for cheaper petrol and cooking oil are dim. One has only to remember that winter is just around the corner in the western hemisphere, where a lot of Europeans will be needing extra warmth amid a tragicomic shortage of pullovers, sweaters and bras.