Alexander Nicholas Shaw

Alexander Nicholas Shaw


Summary: My PhD looks at British intelligence in Singapore during the period of the early Cold War and Malayan Emergency. This is funded by the White Rose College for the Arts and Humanities and AHRC.

Current research projects

My WRoCAH-funded PhD project is entitled 'British Intelligence Activities in Singapore, 1946-1959: Local Security, Regional Co-ordination and the Cold War in the Far East'. This uses material including records created by various intelligence services, colonial 'Migrated Archives', personal papers and oral history testimony. It moves beyond the history of individual intelligence agencies to interrogate the broader intelligence community in Singapore, considering the impact of intelligence and hierarchies between Whitehall, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Prior to starting my PhD I graduated with First Class Honours in International History and Politics at the University of Leeds in 2014 and earned an MA with Distinction in Modern History at the same institution in 2015.

My PhD is supervised by Professor Simon Ball, Dr Adam Cathcart and previously Dr Martin Thornton.

My new book, an edited edition of Malcolm MacDonald's previously unpublished memoir The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting, was published in December 2018. This is part of my continuing research into the relationship between diplomats' private hobbies (specifically, Asian art collecting) and diplomatic duties. This project, influenced by ideas from New Diplomatic History, considers the interplay of performance, emotions, and personality in both official and informal diplomacy. In February 2019 I will be visiting Singapore to give a series of public talks exploring different themes from my research into Malcolm MacDonald's career.


Research interests

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


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 am 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. In February 2019 I will be giving a series of lectures about MacDonald in Singapore in partnership with the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, British High Commission, NUS Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and the Tanglin Club. 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 am also a co-curator on the Legacies of  the First World War War exhibition project at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery (Leeds), where I work with Eilis Boyle, Alison Fell, Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis and Richard High. Our exhibition, Goodbye to All That? Legacies of the First World War, explores 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? is free and open to the public until 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 include 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.

Public talks (UK)

(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)




Malcolm J. MacDonald, The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting, edited by Alexander Nicholas Shaw (Durham: Friends of the Oriental Museum, 2018)

Journal articles 

'Propaganda Intelligence and Covert Action: The Regional Information Office and British Intelligence in South-East Asia, 1949-1961', Journal of Intelligence History (forthcoming, accepted 27 February 2018)

'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

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)

"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


Conference papers, public talks and research seminars

Conference papers

'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 1st Student Conference (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 28th Annual Conference (Edinburgh, UK, September 2016)

'Perfidious Albion? Britain, the United States and Triangular Diplomacy with the Qavam Government in Iran, 1946-47', Eleventh Biennial 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', Second Biennial 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)


I have previously taught at Leeds on the undergraduate module HIST 1819 International History 1919-89: Conflict, Cooperation and Change.

Prizes and funding

Research funding

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