In the Malay language, the phrase sakit hati means “pain in the heart”.

Sakit hati, both literal and figurative, summed up a day in the life of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad last week. He was in hospital for a heart-related ailment when his new political vehicle – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – was wheeled out. The new party is the outcome of the emotional heartache caused by current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is mired in the scandal over the troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

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Mahathir retired as premier in 2003, after a record 22 years at the helm. He was also critical of his chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, but it is against Najib that he has gone to full-frontal war.

The 1MDB debacle has cost Malaysia billions of dollars in lost funds, a battered currency and international humiliation. The latest assault has come from the United States Department of Justice, which is going after people close to Najib. Cronies have allegedly used the fund as their own personal kitty to buy penthouses, Monet and Van Gogh paintings and even anti-ageing treatments.

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A vocal critic after the scandal surfaced, Mahathir attended a rally last year calling on the PM to resign. This March, he quit the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

He probably expected these symbolic moves to strengthen the hand of any politician within UMNO bold enough to mount an internal challenge against Najib.

Najib, however, has proven to be astoundingly resilient. He is like the politicians’ equivalent of big banks that are “too big to fail”. Having amassed a war chest of mind-blowing proportions, he seems able to steady wavering loyalties, and swiftly crush opponents. Chinese money has already bailed out 1MDB and it is unlikely he will lose his grip so suddenly.

The strongest challenge, from former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was extinguished almost as soon as it had begun.

Mahathir’s is the only voice strong enough to rally anti-Najib forces into one coherent force among the Malays, the largest voting bloc in the country. The opposition is fractured. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, is tucked away in jail on sex charges.

The new party comprises Mahathir as chairman, Muhyiddin as president and Mahathir’s son as deputy president.

On one level, it is admirable that someone who at 91 feels so moved to act. On another level, however, Mahathir’s latest gambit risks his own legacy.

Instead of departing on his terms, as he did in 2003, he may now find himself leaving the scene a loser.

It is not even as if all anti-Najib Malaysians support his latest move. Many abhor his decision to base his new party on Malaysia’s corrosive template of racialised politics. His Parti Pribumi Bersatu (literally, “united indigenous party”) represents the “sons of the soil” – basically, the same Malay constituency that forms UMNO’s base. This is in contrast to Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), which has attempted – admittedly with limited success – to cut across Malaysia’s multiethnic demographic.

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To understand Mahathir, you have to look at his past. He was the comeback king of his era. In 1969, as a young backbencher, he called for his prime minister to resign, only to find himself kicked out of UMNO. He spent three years in the political wilderness before making his way back into the ruling party, finally clinching the premiership in 1981.

His fighting spirit is reminiscent of his old nemesis, Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore leader who died last year. Lee made no bones about his interventionist instincts, once warning that if there were something wrong with Singapore, “even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up”.

After stepping aside as prime minister in 1990, he remained in the cabinet for 21 more years. Perhaps Lee knew himself better than Mahathir did – Lee did not pretend he could tolerate total retirement. And rather than having a say in government in some murky unofficial capacity, the legalistic part of Lee always preferred a formal, honest seat at the table.

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It was only in 2011, in the aftermath of a bruising election, that he was persuaded to leave the cabinet to signal the ruling party’s willingness to change. In that election campaign, his statement that voters would regret and “repent” if they voted for the opposition backfired on a new kind of electorate that did not take kindly to being threatened.

Knowing when to bow out is one of the critical judgment calls any leader must make, and history is full of fine leaders who failed in that one respect.

Of course, when retired leaders have politics coursing through their veins, like a Mahathir or a Lee, it’s understandable they’d want to leap back into the fray when they feel sakit hati over the way their countries are being run. It is that passion, conviction and steely self-belief that made them appealing to their supporters in the first place.

The real question is why a younger generation of politicians would need or want the services of a has-been. When yesterday’s man has to be rolled back in, it can only be because today’s men and women are bereft of answers. And that cannot be a good sign for the health of a country.

Epilogue

In this column on Sunday, I observed that former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamed was risking his legacy by taking on the incumbent, Mr Najib Razak.

Several Malaysian media outlets, including the national news agency Bernama, quoted my piece. Interestingly, though, all of them chose to do so rather selectively. They left out any negative statements about Mr Najib, making it seem as if my article had been more critical of Dr Mahathir than of the current Prime Minister. This was far from the case.

My piece pointed out that Dr Mahathir was moved to action by the 1MDB scandal. I wrote: “The 1MDB debacle has cost Malaysia billions of dollars in lost funds, a battered currency and international humiliation. The latest assault has come from the United States Department of Justice, which is going after people close to Najib. Cronies have allegedly used the fund as their own personal kitty to buy penthouses, Monet and Van Gogh paintings and even anti-ageing treatments.”

I also made clear why Mr Najib was difficult to unseat: “Having amassed a war chest of mind-blowing proportions, he seems able to steady wavering loyalties, and swiftly crush opponents. Chinese money has already bailed out 1MDB and it is unlikely he will lose his grip so suddenly.”

None of this was mentioned by Bernama or other reports. Which tells me that one of the main obstacles that Dr Mahathir will face is a media landscape that is tilted in favour of the powers-that-be.

Editor’s note: this column was updated on Wednesday, August 17

Zuraidah Ibrahim is the editor of This Week in Asia