SHE holds no public office, devoting her time instead to charity work and in lobbying for the downtrodden. Yet nobody turns down an invitation to cosy lunches and dinners at her Manila mansion, and everybody returns her telephone calls promptly. So what makes Rosemarie ''Baby'' Arenas arguably one of the most powerful and influential people in the Philippines? Certainly, stories of an alleged close relationship with President Fidel Ramos have to be a prime contributing factor, especially in politically driven Filipino society where shadow counts as much as substance. What is without doubt is that 53-year-old Arenas campaigned tirelessly for Ramos at the last presidential election, giving of her time and money - reputed to be in the region of 30 million pesos (about HK$10 million) - generously. And her inner circle of friends who meet for dinner unfailingly every Wednesday (hence called the Wednesday Club) include Vice-President Joseph Estrada and National Security Adviser Joe Almonte - the second and third most powerful persons respectively in the archipelago. Holding court in a harbour view suite at the Island Shangri-La, Arenas - immaculately groomed and coiffured, and designer-labelled from head to toe - is every bit a socialite of the serious variety. But her composure is ruffled when she finds herself having to defend her friends in high places. ''It infuriates me when people misconstrue any entertaining I do as power-broking,'' she states dismissively, adding: ''They were my friends before they joined the government and they will remain my friends long after they've left the government.'' The Filipino people have read the newspaper headlines, heard the coffee shop gossip and generally consider Arenas to be someone with a healthy appetite for controversy. And don't they love her for it. When strolling through Pacific Place with her teenage son Roberto who attends private school in England, Arenas is quickly recognised by other Filipinos in the mall and soon an excited entourage forms around her and cameras are quickly produced and flashlights pop. She has a friendly word for all, asking after the welfare of the domestic workers among them and telling them to write to her if they have any problems. ''Just address the letter 'Baby Arenas, Makati, Philipinnes' and it will get to me,'' she advises. ''Is it true you will be running for Mayor of Makati?'' asks one of the maids. As Arenas smiles non-committedly, the maid adds: ''My family lives in Makati and I can assure you that they will all vote for you.'' Back in her suite the possibility of her entering the political arena and running for the top post in Makati is raised. ''What Makati needs is someone who can tackle the problems of peace and order and restore it to being a crime-and pollution-free city where the quality of life is enhanced,'' she says as if outlining her election manifesto. If Makati - which incorporates the financial district of the Philippines - is considered the lungs of the country, it is believed that Arenas with her flair and charisma will make Makati its heart and soul, too. Arenas admits that she is being pressured by various civic groups to run for the post. If she does, then it is widely preceived that she will win. But it is not Makati but Pangasinan, the political balliwick of President Ramos 300 kilometres north of the capital, that has Arenas currently embroiled in flaming controversy and at loggerheads with Senator Leticia Ramos Shahani, the president's sister. Making a high profile visit to Ramos country to address the Rotary Club, Arenas found on getting there that another key enagagement involving the Girl Guides had mysteriously been cancelled, with suspicions cast that the hand of Shahani was behind it. But Arenas stuck to what remained of her schedule and was given a tumultous welcome. She in turn charmed them by singing Malinal Lai Labi, a revered Pangasinan folk song. Things hotted up at a packed press conference when a journalist asked Arenas her opinion on dynasties - a particularly hot local topic since the thirtysomething son of Senator Shahani, the current vice-governor Ranjit Shahani, is being primed for the gubernatorial post when it comes up for grabs next year. Arenas launched into the attack, assailing the existence of dynasties and, for good measure, reminding the audience that getting rid of dynasties was one of the President's electoral promises. (An Anti-Dynasty Bill has been bogged down for months in the Philippine Congress where nearly half the legislators are thought to belong to dynasties.) Shahani hit back, telling Arenas that she should keep her well-powdered nose out of Pangasinan affairs. Explains Arenas: ''I was merely responding to a question that I was asked. If that is seen as meddling, so be it. My concern is for the integrity of President Ramos who is easily the best and most effective chief executive the country has ever had. I was just sounding a warning to ensure that nothing will dent that reputation. ''I hope Ranjit - who anyway is a poor fourth in the opinion polls - can be dissuaded from running. If he is still determined to contest the post then all I will say is let the little boy run and the people can decide his fate.'' But back to her own political ambitions. Will she run for Mayor of Makati next May? Arenas flashes a smile with enough wattage to light up all of Metro Manila. ''I think I'll keep my opponents guessing, '' she replies. ''It's the best way - don't you think?''