Alexander Nicholas Shaw

Alexander Nicholas Shaw

WRoCAH PhD Researcher

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, 1946-59: Local Security, Regional Collation 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 milieu 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.

I am also researching the public and private life of Malcolm MacDonald: an important and unconventional British diplomat and architect of decolonisation. Malcolm was also an important art collector in a range of genres. As well as underpinning an exhibition at the Durham Oriental Museum this research will form the basis of several new publications. Currently I am editing MacDonald's memoir The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting for publication in 2018.


Research interests

  • The career and recreations of Malcolm John MacDonald (1901-1981)
  • The links between inter-state diplomacy and private collecting
  • Western art collectors in Asia (particularly Chinese ceramics)
  • Cold War intelligence and diplomacy
  • British foreign policy in the Middle and Far East
  • Material culture in international history


Impact and public engagement

Beauty and Diplomacy

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. Details at: On 18 October 2017 I gave a public talk to the Friends of the Oriental Museum about 'Beauty, Diplomacy and Malcolm MacDonald'. 

This project is linked with ongoing research and activities. In May 2018 I will be giving a public talk in Kirkstall, Leeds, about MacDonald's life as a collector and diplomat. I am also collaborating with the Durham Oriental Museum to organise a themed collectors' tour to coincide with Heritage Open Days in September 2018.

Legacies of War

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. This exhibition, opening on 1 September 2018, will look at the legacies of the First World War on people, families and society across a number of themes including politic, popular culture, women's lives and childhood.




Malcolm J. MacDonald, The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting, edited by Alexander Nicholas Shaw (forthcoming 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 (2017)

'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, the 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

'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 China Centre, 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, October 2016)

Public talks

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

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



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