When Minister Josephine Teo visited China in 1983, the country had a separate currency system for foreigners. They had to use Foreign Exchange Certificates instead of the yuan for purchases.
This was stopped in 1995.
But today, the yuan is rarely seen in big cities like Shanghai, with many choosing to pay for products and services with their smartphones instead of cold, hard cash.
Mrs Teo, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, recounted how China has leapfrogged over many countries to lead in the use of e-payments. She was speaking at a post-National Day Rally forum, organised by government feedback unit Reach, which she co-chaired with Reach chairman Sam Tan.
The transformation in major Chinese cities holds two lessons for Singapore, Mrs Teo said. "Even if you're ahead, someone else will catch up. That's the bad news. But the good news is that even if you're behind today, you can still catch up tomorrow."
She was responding to concerns some seniors have about Singapore's plans to be a Smart Nation, which was one of the three issues Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong focused on in his Rally speech. While some seniors worry about being left behind as the country goes "cashless", others fear Singapore is slow in embracing e-payment.
Mr Tan, who is also Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, assured the seniors that the Government and the community will team up to provide training, help and facilities. He cited the many computer skills programmes for the elderly at community centres.
Acknowledging it may be hard to make the switch, he urged seniors to keep an open mind and persist.
Mrs Teo, who is also Second Minister for Manpower and Foreign Affairs, added that the Government will ensure the new forms of e-payment are convenient and with the appropriate regulation in place.
Participants, ranging from students to retirees, said this year's National Day Rally focus was a stark departure from previous years, with PM Lee talking about diabetes, pre-schools and Smart Nation instead of more immediate issues like job security.
Mrs Teo explained that this year's topics have serious consequences for the nation if it does not act now. She also noted that a vibrant economy and jobs of the future are in sync with the whole movement towards becoming a Smart Nation.