Alexander Nicholas Shaw


Summary: I completed my PhD on the subject of British intelligence in Singapore in May 2019.

Current research projects

I completed my WRoCAH-funded PhD project in spring 2019. My thesis was titled 'British Intelligence Activities in Singapore, 1946-1959: Local Security, Regional Co-ordination and the Cold War in the Far East'. This project used material including records created by various intelligence services, colonial 'Migrated Archives', personal papers and oral history testimony. I am currently working to adapt this thesis into a monograph which will cover a longer period of 1939-1959.

From March-September 2019 I am working at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds in an AHRC-funded postdoctoral position. At the Armouries, I am responsible for conducting research to help inform the creation of a new Second World War gallery to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the conflict. My research focuses on the interplay of army organisation, weapons technology, tactics and human experience in the British infantry section. This group, usually of around 8-10 fighting men, was the basic building block of the British Army. These soldiers fought, rested, lived and, if necessary, died together. The way they experienced war in different campaigns and theatres reflected the development of new tactics to best meet the influx of new weapons. As part of this project, I am preparing a book manuscript about the evolution of the British infantry section during the Second World War.

Last but not least, I am continuing research into the intersections between art collecting as a private hobby (specifically when engaged in by diplomats) and international diplomacy. For this project, I am using ideas from New Diplomatic History relating to the performative aspects of diplomacy, diplomatic sociability, and the questions of what constitutes diplomacy and who practises it. My major case study for this project is the British diplomat Malcolm J. MacDonald. Previously I have curated a museum exhibition about MacDonald’s life as a diplomat and collector and my first book – a posthumous collaboration with MacDonald and the Durham Oriental Museum – was published in 2018. I will be continuing my research into this area through two grants I have received in 2019: a Scouloudi Research Award from the Institute of Historical Research, and a Residential Research Library Fellowship from Durham University.


Research interests

  • The career and recreations of Malcolm John MacDonald (1901-1981)
  • Diplomacy and private collecting/material culture
  • History of Singapore
  • Cold War intelligence and diplomacy
  • New Diplomatic History approaches




Malcolm J. MacDonald, The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting, edited by Alexander Nicholas Shaw (Durham: Friends of the Oriental Museum, 2018). ISBN: 978-1-5272-3198-6

In preparation: The British Infantry Section and its Weapons in the Second World War

In preparation: A Unique Window on Southeast Asia: British Intelligence in Singapore, 1939-1959

Journal articles 

'Propaganda Intelligence and Covert Action: The Regional Information Office and British Intelligence in South-East Asia, 1949-1961', Journal of Intelligence History (2019)

'A Diplomat and Collector: Malcolm MacDonald's Pursuit of Beauty during the Cold War and End of Empire', Journal of the History of Collections, 30(3) (2018), 511-527

'MI5 and the Cold War in South-East Asia: Examining the Performance of Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE), 1946-1963', Intelligence and National Security, 32(6) (2017), 797-816

'Sir Reader Bullard, Frank Roberts and the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1945-46: Bevin's Officials, Perceptions and the Adoption of a Cold War Mentality in British Soviet Policy', Cold War History, 17(3) (2017), 279-297

'British Counterinsurgency in Brunei and Sarawak, 1962-63: Developing Best Practices in the Shadow of Malaya', Small Wars & Insurgencies,  27(4) (2016), 702-725

"Strong, United and Independent': The British Foreign Office, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the Internationalisation of Iranian Politics at the Dawn of the Cold War, 1945-46', Middle Eastern Studies, 52(3) (2016), 505-524

"We Have Just About Had It': Jack Slessor, the Foreign Office, and the Anglo-American Strategic Debate over Escalation of the Korean War, 1950-51', Yonsei Journal of International Studies, 6(2) (2014), 294-317

Other publications

(with Adam Cathcart) ‘No Space for Democracy? Political Dissidence in Colonial and Contemporary Hong Kong’, China Policy Institute: Analysis (13 July 2017) 

Republished by the Hong Kong Free Press (23 July 2017)


Impact and public engagement

I maintain an active public presence by working in collaboration with a range of external partners. I am happy to be contacted by any person or organisation interested in working together in the future. Some of my previous public activities include:

Beauty and Diplomacy exhibition (2017-18)

I was the designer and curator of the exhibition Beauty and Diplomacy: The Malcolm MacDonald Collections in partnership with the Durham Oriental Museum. Our exhibition explored the eccentric adventures of Malcolm MacDonald, looking at his diplomatic achievements, personal friendships and collecting passions. It was open to the public from 20 October-21 December 2017. This project is linked with continuing research activities. I am actively seeking further opportunities to disseminate this research across the world, particularly in East and Southeast Asia.

Goodbye to All That? exhibition (2018-19)

I was a co-curator on the Legacies of the First World War War exhibition project at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery (Leeds), where I worked with Eilis Boyle, Alison Fell, Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis and Richard High. Our exhibition, Goodbye to All That? Legacies of the First World War, explored the legacies of the First World War on people, families and society across a number of themes including politics, women's lives, childhood and zombie literature. Goodbye to All That? was free and open to the public from 1 September 2018-31 January 2019.

Malaysia museology workshop (2018)

In September 2018 I was part of a team led by Durham University and the Oriental Museum delivering a 3-day museology workshop at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Our partners included the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Department of Museums, University of Malaya, Museums Association of Malaysia and the Committee of Museums and Galleries for Malaysian Public Universities. This allowed me to develop new links with Malcolm MacDonald's collections in Malaysia.

Singapore lecture series (2019)

I was invited by the Southeast Asian Ceramics Society (SEACS) to give a series of talks in Singapore about my research into Malcolm MacDonald. In partnership with SEACS, I devised a series of four talks dealing with different aspects of MacDonald's life and career. These consisted of:

'The Pursuit of Beauty: Malcolm MacDonald's Ceramic Collections', National University of Singapore Museum (19 February 2019)

'The Shirt Sleeved Diplomat: Malcolm MacDonald in Malaya and Singapore', SEACS-China Society joint dinner lecture at the Tanglin Club (20 February 2019)

'Our Man in Singapore: Malcolm MacDonald's Cold War Diplomacy', UK High Commissioner's Residence at Eden Hall (21 February 2019)

'Beauty and Diplomacy: Malcolm MacDonald and his Collections', Friends of the Museums/Asian Civilisations Museum (22 February 2019)

I am grateful to all my Singapore-based partners for arranging this tour. 

UK public talks

'From Delhi to Durham: Malcolm MacDonald, Diplomat and Collector', Northallerton and District Local History Society (Northallerton, UK, 9 April 2019)

(with Eilis Boyle) 'Goodbye to All What? Curating the Legacies of the First World War', Leeds Central Library (Leeds, UK, 13 September 2018)

'Malcolm MacDonald and the Beauty of Diplomacy: From Lossiemouth to Laos via Downing Street', Kirkstall Abbey 1152 Club (Leeds, UK, 11 May 2018)

'Beauty, Diplomacy and Malcolm MacDonald', Friends of the Oriental Museum (Durham, UK, 18 October 2017)


Conference papers and research seminars

Conference papers

Rountable on 'The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting', What's so Fascinating About Ceramics? (public symposium hosted by SEACS and Singapore Management University, Singapore, February 2019)

'Malcolm MacDonald's Ceramic Diplomacy: An Informal Envoy to Communist China during the Cold War', New Diplomatic History Network 3rd Conference (Middelburg, Netherlands, October 2018)

'Malcolm MacDonald and the Art of Diplomacy: Collecting, Material Culture and International Relations in Cold War Southeast Asia', Visual Intersections III (Durham, UK, July 2018)

'Understanding Revolution: British Intelligence, Open Sources and the Struggle to Interpret Mao's China during the Korean War Period, 1950-54', Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies (Graz, Austria, May 2017)

'South-East Asian Security and the British Construction of the Cold War in 1947-48: Regional Intelligence, Kremlinist Conspiracy and Colonial Containment', British International History Group Annual Conference (Edinburgh, UK, September 2016)

'Perfidious Albion? Britain, the United States and Triangular Diplomacy with the Qavam Government in Iran, 1946-47', International Society for Iranian Studies Conference (Vienna, Austria, August 2016)

"Strong, United and Independent': Great Britain, the Communist Challenge and the Internationalisation of Iranian Politics, 1945-46', Symposia Iranica (Cambridge, UK, April 2015)

Research seminar and workshop papers

‘A Fraternity of Collectors: Malcolm MacDonald, Art Networks and British Diplomacy in Asia’, Networks Postgraduate Research Seminar (Durham, UK, November 2018)

'Hong Kong on the Edge of a Volcano: British Intelligence, Colonial Security and the Showdown with Communism, 1948-50', Oxford International History of East Asia Research Seminar (Oxford, UK, November 2016)

'An Instrument of Colonial Domination? The Personnel and Operational Culture of the Singapore Special Branch during the Emergency Years, 1948-59', Workshop on Empire and Policing (Liverpool, UK, October 2016)


Positions and funding

Research funding and positions (postdoctoral and small grants)

Royal Historical Society Conference Travel Grant (for travel to a conference in Singapore, December 2019)

Durham Residential Research Library Fellowship (October-November 2019)

Scouloudi Research Award, Institute of Historical Research (2019)

AHRC Innovation Placement (March-September 2019)

Research funding (scholarships)

WRoCAH AHRC Doctoral Scholarship (2015-18)

University of Leeds School of History MA Scholarship (2014-15)

Prizes and awards

University of Leeds School of History Marion Sharples Prize (2014-15) for the best dissertation by a taught MA student in the School of History

University of Leeds School of History Outstanding Achievement Award (2013-14) for the best overall performance by a final year student parented by the School of History

University of Leeds School of History Special Subject Prize (2013-14) for the best performance in a History Special Subject by a student parented by the School of History

University of Leeds School of History John Taylor Prize (2012-13) for the best overall performance by a second year student parented by the School of History

University of Leeds School of History John Cox Prize (2011-12) for the best overall performance by a first year student parented by the School of History