After an evening meal on Singapore's boat quay, Stephen K. Craven and his wife stopped by a small shop.
"They had a T-shirt that defined the essence of Singapore today," said Craven, the senior commercial officer at the U.S. embassy.
In a large, bold typeface that gets increasingly smaller, he said, the shirt carried this simple message:
Money! Money! Money! Money! Money! Money! . . .
The same T-shirt would also fit for the rest of the states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
Established in 1967, ASEAN is a free-trade zone that joins Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
"The ASEAN nations are now the United States' third-largest overseas market after Japan and the European Community," said Robert E. Driscoll, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Council, a U.S. industry-sponsored trade group.
This trade accounts for more than 500,000 U.S. jobs, Driscoll added. And over the past five years, "our exports to these nations have increased by 120 percent," he said.
But even at that, U.S. exports have only matched the area's rate of increase in imports, he said. "They are a market of $199 billion, and we supply about 14 percent.
American firms can, and must, do better, said Driscoll and other U.S. trade officials interviewed at the recent "Business Opportunities In Southeast Asia" conference in St. Louis.
Locally sponsored by McDonnell Douglas Corp., Mallinckrodt Inc. and The World Affairs Council, the conference brought together businesspeople and the U.S. ambassadors to the ASEAN nations with their commercial officers.
Combined, the ASEAN states have more than 330 million people, with a gross domestic product of more than $400 billion. They offer big opportunities for companies that sell such products as power-generation equipment, aircraft, high technology and consumer goods.
"These are countries that are going to be leapfrogging whole levels of technology," Driscoll said. "For example, there's a higher per capita level of the use of cellular in Southeast Asia than in the U.S."
Still, as Carol M. Kim argues, "Southeast Asia is sort of the forgotten market - in part because every market is a good market these days in Asia.
"You are talking about an average annual growth rate for the last six to eight years of 10 percent," said Kim, the senior U.S. commercial officer in Bangkok, Thailand. "We are now in a slower period, but we are still looking at growth rates of 8 percent."
And those growth rates mean major imports. "By the year 2000, the ASEAN nations will be importing about $450 billion," Driscoll said. "We should be providing $90 billion to $100 billion," or about 20 percent.
While all the ASEAN nations are seeing rapid growth, each nation varies greatly in its level of development.
Singapore: This 224-square-mile island is half the size of St. Louis County, but it is the United States' largest trading partner in the area. In 1993, the U.S. exported goods valued at nearly $11.7 billion - or 41 percent all U.S. exports to the ASEAN states.
The 1994 per capita income, Craven said, is nearly $17,000 a year, the same level as Sweden. Literacy is about 90 percent.
"It's amazing to me to find out that this nation of 3 million is more important to us in a trading sense than Italy," he said.
"This is a nation with no natural …