Like Brexit, holding a citizens-initiated referendum may seem to make little difference to what issues people really care about or understand. FILE PIC

SARAWAK legislative assembly Speaker Datuk Amar Mohamad Asfia Awang Nassar is perhaps better noted when he holds court within the hallowed single chamber of the riverside assembly building.

He probably is in his best lawyerly element on the rare occasions he held court outside the assembly chamber, as he did on May 16, explaining to the media why the legislative branch is “supreme” in our system of government vis-à- vis the courts and the executive branch.

Asfia was serving notice that he will act to strike out any move to have the assembly’s decision to disqualify an elected assemblyman challenged in court.

“The legislative assembly is the final arbiter in any question arising as to whether a member of the assembly has become disqualified for membership,” he said.

That was not the only drama in the current assembly sitting.

The Speaker made it almost his first order of business on the second day of the sitting to dismiss five of six opposition-initiated motions on various grounds, while reserving the last to be thrown out by majority vote of the entire assembly.

Thus, was nipped in the bud a potentially serious issue since the motion voted down had called for a debate on proposed legislation to allow for a citizens-initiated referendum (CIR).

In explaining why he introduced his private member’s bill on the subject earlier, Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How had said: “The CIR, which is initiated by the people, will empower them to play a constructive role for a more vibrant and transparent democratic system in Sarawak.

“On the other hand, being an indicative referendum, the result of the referendum is merely indicative of the views held by the people. The government is not bound to legislate or change its policy to conform with the referendum.”

It is not difficult to imagine how non-constructive and unproductive, even counter-productive, a non-binding referendum will be, if allowed. It will be, to say the least, highly divisive.

Former British prime minister David Cameron had been roundly criticised for putting Britons through a referendum with such huge consequential effects, when most ordinary British voters cared little and understood even less what it actually meant for them when voting to leave the European Union.

In fact, with Britons now in the throes of another general election so soon after the last one, increasing numbers of British voters (as with their counterparts in much of the Western world) are either fed up with too much of such supposedly democratic exercises, or simply with the lack of any real choices voting affords them.

British voters are now disenchanted that elections seem to make little difference to what they really care about — their diminishing personal prospects and expectations in an inexorably diminished country.

Be absolutely careful then about what we wish for, as it may be just as good an advice for Britons (though belated) as it is for Sarawakians.

It is perhaps time we all re-think the idea that there is nothing that can possibly be wrong about having too much democracy. So-called “professional” politicians may be loathed by some, but they may be as much a necessary “evil” as lawyers or even doctors.

Governing is a hugely complex business and likely to only become even more so, going forward.

Citizens-initiated electoral exercises, such as those occasionally deployed in California in the United States, work only because they are confined to narrow civic matters, not anything as complex as Brexit!

John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.

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